The National Weather Service is changing the way it sends out some cell phone alerts, with the goal of better capturing users’ attention.
The agency plans to reduce the number of notices it sends to mobile phones for flash flood warnings. Alerts for the most serious events will be prioritized over flooding events that are not expected to have a major impact on the public.
Robert Ballard, a science and operations officer with the NWS Honolulu Field Office, said the agency found that many cell phone users were receiving alerts for flood events that were not expected to significantly impact their community.
Concerns over the possible tuning out or ignoring the alerts all together led the National Weather Service to reduce the number of alerts it sends out via mobile phone.
This month, the NWS is introducing a new system for categorizing flash floods by severity, much as hurricanes and tornadoes are already. The risk level of each flood event will be evaluated as either base, considerable, or catastrophic.
Cell phone alerts will only be sent out for the top two categories. Ballard says the goal is to get people to really pay attention when an alert goes out.
“Now we have a way to sort of limit those alerts to situations which we would consider to be considerable impacts or catastrophic impacts. And that’s when we will be sounding the wireless emergency alerts,” he said.
In Hawaii, where numerous micro-climates create widely varying weather conditions within a relatively small area, flooding alerts are often sent to wireless phone users who are nowhere near the danger area.
Ballard says the Weather Service can target alerts to specific regions of each island, but it’s up to cell service providers to decide whether they will notify users in just that area or the entire island.
Emergency alerts can be switched off on individual phones, so users need to verify emergency messages are turned on if they want them.