CMAS flub shows the dark side of text alerts

December 14, 2011

CMAS Alert: Civil Emergency in this area until 1:24 PM EST. Take Shelter Now. U.S. Govern popped up on mobile phones in New Jersey yesterday.  No need to panic, this was apparently part of a poorly run test of CMAS in the garden state. And the test results were not good.

While some blogs and headlines proclaim the alert “freaked out New Jersey”, that’s hyperbole and exactly what did not happen.  One report says 911 call centers got 172 calls during the one hour period from noon to 1 PM, over “twice” the normal call volume. Wow.

CMAS is being promoted as the next big thing in mobile emergency notifications.  Sorry folks, it’s not.

The BIG PICTURE lesson learned from this CMAS mishap is that most people simply ignored the cryptic CMAS message and went about their daily activities.  This is the real danger of relying on a 90 character text-only messaging system to deliver critical information.  There is no way to establish credibility with 90 characters of text in an unexpected and hopefully rare broadcast.

CMAS stands for Commercial Mobile Alert System and is the federal governments new and forthcoming all-text solution for sending emergency alerts to mobile phones.  The last part makes a lot of sense; we live in a mobile society and alerts need to be sent to mobile phones to reach the most people in harm’s way.

CMAS has good intentions, but uses pre-smartphone user-interface technology (i.e. TEXT) as a tool for communicating public safety messages.  Furthermore, CMAS is not backward-compatible with the 300 million existing mobile phones in the US.  Very few phones even support CMAS yet, but more will next year.  Unfortunately, the design of CMAS is obsolete even before it launches.  Being limited to 90 characters of text is a problem.  And CMAS can’t even support a hyperlink to a web page with more information.  There is only so much you can say in 90 characters of text.  That’s fewer characters than a standard text message allows.  Even Twitter allows 140.  CMAS which was designed in 2005, before the introduction of the original iPhone, is simply the wrong solution for emergency broadcasts to mobile phones.

You don’t need to be Captain Kirk to see that our ELERTS app is light-years ahead of CMAS.  ELERTS is a free download in the Apple and Android app stores.

ELERTS can send content-rich, actionable, public safety notifications today.  And while CMAS is a one-way broadcast technology, ELERTS allows for two way communication, taking advantage of the crowd-sourced information on the street, when a serious event occurs.  Citizen reporters can add valuable information to the emergency response toolkit during a crisis.  ELERTS can also transmit location-aware evacuation maps, showing different evacuation routes based on where people are located.  CMAS can’t do that.  ELERTS can send high resolution photos of the emergency situation, for a more informative public safety warning.  Photos provide a lot more information than a short text message.

When it comes to public safety, placebos just won’t do.  Citizens need real tools to deal effectively with crisis situations.  This means being able to use your mobile phone to send and receive photos and maps as part of the emergency communication.

Read more about the New Jersey CMAS test here


Crowdsourced Situational Awareness

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