Cellphone Blizzard Alert Successfully Befuddles Half the East Coast

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 7 2013 5:06 PM

Cellphone Blizzard Alert Successfully Befuddles Half the East Coast

Emergency alert iPhone screenshot

Screenshot / iPhone

If you live along the Northeastern Seaboard, there's a good chance your mobile phone buzzed or beeped Thursday afternoon with a text alert like the one shown at left. And if you don't, there's a decent chance you witnessed the fallout on Twitter anyway.

Why did some people get the alerts while others sitting right next to them did not? Did half the country download some emergency-alert app that they've since forgotten about? If you didn't get the message, does that mean you're safe? Or doomed?


No, no, and no. The alerts are sent via the Wireless Emergency Alert system, developed by the FCC and FEMA and implemented starting in April 2012. They appear on WEA-equipped mobile phones by default, regardless of what apps you have active. As ABC News explained in November, when Sandy spurred a similar (if seemingly more justified) emergency bulletin, the discrepancy is merely a matter of which phones have been outfitted by their carriers to display the alerts. Have an iPhone 4S or 5 on Verizon? You probably got the memo. Same phone on AT&T? No alert: It seems the carrier's LTE network does not support the system. I've asked AT&T's press team for further explanation and will update if they reply. (Update, 5:35 p.m.: Here is AT&T's list of devices that support the alerts, and here is Verizon's.)

The alerts seem like a great idea in theory, although today's message wasn't exactly overflowing with actionable intel. Reactions on social networks and in the newsroom where I'm sitting right now suggest the alert's most immediate effect was to make those who got it wonder why they did and those who didn't get it wonder why they didn't.

But hey, here you are finding out the answer. So, if nothing else, hooray for the sage advice to "check media." Oh wait, were you hoping to learn something about the actual blizzard? Try Weather Underground's page on Winter Storm Nemo.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.



Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
Future Tense
Sept. 21 2014 11:38 PM “Welcome to the War of Tomorrow” How Futurama’s writers depicted asymmetrical warfare.
  Health & Science
The Good Word
Sept. 21 2014 11:44 PM Does This Name Make Me Sound High-Fat? Why it just seems so right to call a cracker “Cheez-It.”
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.