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Officials: Cellphone manufacturers thwarting wireless disaster alerts

Despite the fact that Apple phones have a chip that can receive FM radio broadcasts, Apple has refused to activate it


By Wendy Lee
San Francisco Chronicle 

SAN FRANCISCO —If a major disaster were to hit San Francisco, we'd probably first turn to our phones—our hyperconnected link to the outside world.

Yet for a number of all-too-human reasons, those devices may prove far less useful in an emergency than they could be.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Thursday pointed out a flaw in Apple's iPhones: Despite the fact that they have a chip that can receive FM radio broadcasts, Apple has refused to activate it. "It is time for Apple to step up to the plate and put the safety of the American people first," Pai said. 

Currently, local officials' tool for sending out urgent messages to smartphones is the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system. Distinct from text messages and app notifications, the alert system lets officials target warnings to specific geographical areas. The system is also used for Amber Alert missing-child warnings. 

While it's not affected by cell phone congestion caused by a flood of calls or text messages, the system relies on the existing network of cellular towers, which is vulnerable to storms and physical damage. St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands lost Internet access and phone service this week after a generator powering a cell phone tower was stolen.

In disaster zones and rural areas, radio broadcasts could reach people when cell phone networks are weak or missing, officials involved in emergency preparedness say.

Even when cell phone networks are working well, there's another obstacle that those responsible for managing emergencies may create themselves: Smartphone owners may turn a deaf ear to the alerts—or turn them off altogether.

On Wednesday, San Francisco officials sent an alert warning residents about the day's hardly menacing heat wave, when the weather was a full 20 degrees cooler than the Sept. 1 record-setting 106-degree scorcher.

Smartphone owners can turn off almost all government alerts—only alerts sent by the president can override that choice —and there's some evidence that many sought to do so Wednesday after San Francisco sent out its alert.

The pressure on Apple and other smartphone manufacturers to activate radio comes as parts of the nation reel from devastating storms, prompting discussions about improving communications with people in danger.

In hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, radio broadcasts are playing a vital role, said Joe Hillis, operations director for the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center. One Univision radio station in Puerto Rico continued to broadcast even as Hurricane Maria tore the roof off its building.

"Emergency instructions such as whether to shelter in place or evacuate an area could mean the difference between life and death," Hillis said in an email.

Local radio also provides information to people traveling through an unfamiliar area, such as where to avoid roads with fast-moving water, said Dianna Bryant, an associate professor of crisis and disaster management at the University of Central Missouri. Global Internet radio stations mostly playing music won't do that, she pointed out.

Many smartphones have a radio tuner inside them, but some manufacturers—Apple is the most notable—have refused to activate them. Several major Android smartphone makers, including Samsung, HTC and LG have activated the FM chips in their phones. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

While experts said it would not be technically challenging for Apple to activate its FM chip, the company may be choosing not to turn it on because it might discourage people from signing up for Apple Music, its $9.99-per-month service that streams songs over the Internet.

"The last thing they would want is to create a competition in a space where they think they can own it," said Paul Brenner, president of NextRadio, maker of a free app that connects users to local radio stations.

If wireless networks are down, users can still use NextRadio's app to access the radio tuners in their smartphones. Brenner says usage went up in the areas affected by the recent hurricanes.

San Francisco faced a tempest-in-a-text-message emergency of its own making on Wednesday when the city sent, for the first time, emergency alerts to tens of thousands of mobile phone users warning them about a heat wave. Not all residents were thrilled to get the text messages.

"Got an EXTREME TEXT ALERT, annoying sound and all, warning me about the heat in SF," tweeted Ryan Scott, an editorial director at Geekbox Media on Wednesday, saying the high temperature was 87 degrees where he was located. "Y'all are lightweights," Scott commented.

Some residents complained on Twitter that they got the alert more than once. Officials with the city's Department of Emergency Management said they were looking into the cause, saying they did not intend for residents to receive more than one alert.

On Google, searches in the Bay Area for "turn off alert" and "turn off Amber Alert" surged on Wednesday morning, the day the emergency notification was sent.

"Whenever you trigger some sort of system ... the receptiveness of it varies according to a person's needs," said Kristin Hogan, a department spokeswoman, adding that the city does not want people to opt out of receiving emergency alerts. The aim of sending the alert was to encourage people to check on their neighbors and reach people who might not be aware of the heat danger.

"In this case, it was really turning every stone when it comes to reaching out," Hogan added.

Part of the challenge is figuring out the appropriate balance for how often people want to receive emergency information, said Bryant, the Missouri professor.

"Too frequently means that people are irritated and they don't like it," Bryant said. "If they are not frequent enough, you don't know what it is."

Copyright 2017 San Francisco Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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