Why Your Cell Phone Flipped Out Before Juno

At approximately 8:48 p.m. on January 26th, the evening that Juno hit New York City, and as people were scrambling to make last minute provisions for what seemed to be a very big storm, New Yorkers across the five boroughs heard a loud and unfamiliar buzz coming from their phone.  That buzz was a text alert from the New York City Office of Emergency Management.

For many New Yorkers, it was the blizzard that wasn’t. But although the storm didn’t exactly ravage the city, the strong winds and heavy snowfall were powerful enough to shut down most operations. After Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio called a state of emergency for New York, the Office  of Emergency Management designed the text alerts to “reinforce and amplify” the mayor’s emergency order.

Called Wireless Emergency Alerts, these messages were sent by the Office of Emergency Management to FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. FEMA’S system in turn hit every cell phone tower in the city with the alert which sent messages to phones across the five boroughs.


Snow piled up in Prospect Park. (Yvonne Juris/ NY City Lens)

People can sign up to receive text and email alerts but the Wireless Emergency Alerts, or WEA, are “reserved for the highest level of alerts in the community,” said Ben Krakauer, director of the Watch Command for the Office of Emergency Management. “The beautiful thing about WEA is that it’s already on people’s phones.” Most phones purchased after 2012 are already set up to receive these alerts, though a user can opt out.

Too many alerts for what turned out to be a typical NYC snowstorm?

The resounding answer from  mayor de Blasio, who signed off on the usage of the text alerts and the Office of Emergency Management, is “No.”

“Would you rather be safe or unsafe?” the mayor asked during a City Hall briefing the day after the storm about precautions taken that included the MTA stopping service after 11 p.m. “To me it was a no-brainer. We had to take precautions to keep people safe.”

Because it can be an effective tool for issuing important information, Krakauer said the cell phone alerts could potentially be used in other serious situations, which could be indicative of  a shift in the way local government communicates with the public.

“We would consider doing a localized version of the alert,” Krakauer said. WEA’S  can be sent from local government and at the federal level from the president. Three alerts were issued by the Office of Emergency Management during Hurricane Sandy, and that was the first time the system was used at the local level in New York City. The alert messages were added in 2009 to the FCC’s Warning, Alert, and Response Network Act of 2006.

Text alerts were also used in Boston during the Boston Marathon Bombing.