East TN smartphones receive wrong tornado warning

6:59 PM, Mar 20, 2013   |    comments
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Sprint customers in Knox County and Sevier County received a Tornado warning message on their smartphones Monday afternoon. The message was sent via a new Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system.

There was in fact a destructive storm that caused extensive damage. The problem is it was not in Knox County, Sevier County, or even the state of Tennessee. The warning was for a northern portion of Georgia.

Elaine Evans was in Sevierville when her phone received the ominous message. Evans moved to Tennessee from "tornado alley" in Texas where her home there was hit by a tornado in the 1990s. Evans has developed a habit of keeping an eye on the sky during inclement weather.

"Monday we were standing in the lobby [in Sevierville] just kind of watching the skies a little bit because the weather was not great. Then my phone had this message and this said it was a tornado warning, not a watch. So I was pretty alarmed because normally you get watches or warnings for a severe storm before you get a tornado warning. The message was in a little box and said it was from 'NWS,' the National Weather Service," said Evans.

Some smartphone users said their devices played a shrill tone they had not heard before to alert them to the tornado warning. The message read, "Emergency Alert: Tornado warning in this area until 6:15 PM EDT. Take shelter now. Check local media. -NWS."

Although the messages are attributed to NWS, they are not actually written by the National Weather Service. The wireless provider generates the emergency message and sends it to customers based on their current location.

For example, when a tornado warning is issued the wireless provider will relay the alert to all of the cell phone towers located in the threatened area. Then if your phone is in range of that particular tower it will automatically receive the emergency alert.

"The alerts are similar to SMS (short message service), but are not sent or delivered like a SMS because they're based on the actual location of the phone or tablet, not the device's designated number," wrote Crystal Davis with Sprint.

The alerts are not sent via a downloaded app. WEA is already built into the smartphone when you buy it.

"All of Sprint smartphones that have been released since the summer of 2011 are capable of receiving wireless emergency alerts, including the iPhone 5. Additionally, all of the tablets Sprint has released in 2012 with SMS (text messaging) capabilities are able to receive wireless emergency alerts," wrote Davis.

The National Weather Service said it believes wireless emergency alerts have life-saving potential. Meteorologists are hopeful the nascent technology will improve to avoid crying wolf.

"The main issue is if people are going to turn off these alert messages and they are in danger, then that goes against our mission of protecting life and property," said Anthony Cavallucci with the NWS office in Morristown. "I've been told Sprint is looking into why people in our area received the warning. There have been issues in other parts of the country with other cell phone companies. There were problems in Colorado and also up north during Hurricane Sandy."

Cavallucci emphasized his belief that the current growing pains are part of the development of an improved alert system.

"The system just started in June 2012, so it is relatively new. Be patient while they fine tune it. It might take a year or so, but I think it can be a real benefit and help save lives," said Cavallucci. "The other thing is right now the alert is just a very short message that can only be 90 characters long. Basically, right now it is just a heads up that there might be something dangerous in your area and you are directed to check other sources."

As for Evans, she said she would rather have the tornado warning and not need it than to need it and not have it.

"I would rather be over-warned than under-warned because I've see what these storms can do. So I will take your warnings state of Georgia and I will take your warnings Sprint network. I'm okay with that," laughed Evans.

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