The Catch-22 of Emergency Alerts

About a month ago, I walked off a plane into the terminal at SJC. As I hiked that long walk to the exit, I heard a familiar and annoying sound, the Emergency Alert System sound.

The sound was muffled, and it took me a few more steps to realize it was my own phone bleating in my pocket. Somewhat embarrassed, I took it out and quickly dismissed the alert, which happened to be an AMBER Alert.


Image from

I dismissed the notification so quickly that I didn’t get much information from the actual alert itself. I walked a bit farther before stopping to see if I could recall the notification and actually read it, nope.

I did get another chance about an hour later, as I stood at the front desk of a hotel, but again, the bleating of alert, coupled with the social awkwardness made it nigh impossible for me to read the alert. I tried again to find it without success.

And so it goes with every emergency alert I’ve received on my phone. They have a knack for coming at inopportune moments, like the time one came through in the middle of the night while we were all asleep. Good times.

So, we’ve got a major usability problem here. On the one hand, smartphones are an enormous boon for emergency officials who need to notify the general public. However, on the phone side, how do you make the alerts more usable without forcing users to resort to turning them off completely?

At the very least, the alert should be retrievable so I can review it in peace after turning off that awful noise.

Interesting problem, thoughts?

Find the comments.




  1. On iPhone swipe from top to show notification panel. Choose “All”. I still see my AMBER alerts from 3 weeks ago.

    The last AMBER alert caused quite a commotion at work. The claxon is so loud, and there were so many iPhones in all the cubes going off all at once, that for a moment everyone thought we were having a fire drill.

    Alerts are one of the trickiest UIs to get right. Too subtle and people miss things. Too obnoxious and they turn them off.

  2. And then there are crazy
    (Crazy like a fox, in my opinion, but easy to make fun of).

    It’s only a matter of time before crackers target Authorized Senders. What is an Authorized Sender, you ask?

    When one of my kids was a toddler, he freaked while watching cartoons and an emergency came over cable about THE FLOODWATERS ARE RISING! (on the other side of a mountain chain from where we were).

    The real problem is different people have different ideas of “urgent.” That Amber Alert was way over the top. Stop the Blue Versa! Kill! Kill!

  3. @John: Seems like it should be possible in Android too, but I wasn’t able to find way to review alerts.

    Funny anecdote about the workplace.

  4. @Joel: I guess emergency is subjective. AMBER alerts have always been like that, no more urgent than is usual.

    I wonder what would be to gain from gaining access to the authorized senders. Definitely a high price to pay if caught.

  5. @joel: Ah yes, swatting sounds incredibly frightening, glad there are harsh consequences.

    I like the 70s feel to the media room, no idea to which post it would refer though 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.