Smartphone Emergency Alerts: Useful or Waste of Time?

It was a curious thing; I was sitting at the local Peet’s coffee shop, working on my laptop when someone’s phone rang with an odd ringtone and she looked down. In quick succession most all of the other phones in the room buzzed or rang. Then my phone lit up too:

iphone emergency alert notification

I dutifully looked down, read the notification and promptly forgot it. Considering he was in Denver when this happened and I was getting an alert 45mi away in Boulder, Colorado, it’s hard for me to understand how there was any relevance at all. Why did I get it? A terrible situation with the injured officer and whomever did that is unquestionably a dangerous character, but to see everyone in the café get the same notification at the same time. Well.

It felt very much like something out of a spy thriller. You know the scenes, when everyone from the agency has their phone buzz at the same time, they read the message, and jump up, alarmed and ready for action. Or perhaps an episode of Black Mirror when the community is policing itself and someone has just stepped out of bounds.

Like the Amber Alert system, the strategy here is to have vast over-notification to hopefully get that one person who can actually help or be useful. The cost is fear, anxiety and a sense that the world is an unsafe place, however, so while I am the first to be sympathetic to a lost child – or dangerous felon – I think it’s a valid question to ask whether thousands of people or even tens of thousands need to be notified, read about the situation and feel unempowered? I know, if it were my child, if it were my brother the police officer who had been injured, I’d undoubtedly feel entirely different.

If you want to disable these notifications, by the way, you can. On an iPhone, at least, it’s at the very bottom of the “Notifications” settings page:

disable notifications - emergency alerts amber - iphone

Yes, you can see that I have already disabled AMBER alerts on my phone. I don’t go places where someone who has abducted a child would visit so I made that choice. Perhaps it’s the wrong choice, actually, but statistically, I think the chance that I would remember, recognize and be helpful in a child abduction situation are so tiny that it’s not worth the interruption and notification. Worse, if we are all trained to receive and ignore these emergency alerts, do they accomplish anything?

So that’s my thinking regarding these so-called government alerts. Do you have yours enabled? Do you read and actually think about them when they show up in your world or do you have them disabled / ignore them? Let me know your thoughts, it’s entirely possible I’m wrong on this one…

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