Dust Storm Season Also Means Noisy Cell Phones

July 19, 2013

It’s July, and that means the summer monsoon season is upon us. Dust storms of Biblical proportions may assault Phoenix the same way they always have, but what’s new is the way we hear about them. For some of us, those automatic smartphone warnings are getting downright annoying.

sign Jonathan Carroll is annoyed that his phone has been warning him about dust storms lately. (Photo by Jude Joffe-Block - KJZZ)

Jonathan Carroll, a Phoenix coffee shop owner, first heard it three weeks ago. He was asleep. He thinks it was around 8 a.m. when all of a sudden it sounded like his phone was “basically having a seizure.”

Carroll says his smartphone, a Droid Razr, was making a sound that harkened back to the days of old-fashioned alarm clocks.

“It would just make that ‘EEEEH EEEEH EEEEH’ sound? Well it it was like a vibration of that. And it was going on for like 15 seconds,” Carroll said.

He’d never heard anything like it.

“And so I think, oh, this must be something important. And I look down and it is like, ‘Dust storm warning.’”

Not quite the catastrophe he was expecting.

“And I’m like, why am I getting this?”

Not because he signed up for it.

Carroll's phone was transmitting a Wireless Emergency Alert, a program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Communications Commission.

The newest smartphones receive the alerts automatically.

There are three kinds: Amber Alerts, imminent threats — which include warnings from the National Weather Service — and alerts from the president.

Alerts are confined to certain geographic areas, so if your phone is within range of a targeted cell tower, you’ll be getting a message.

Susan Buchanan of the National Weather Service says the idea is to get people emergency information when they are on the move.

“The more time people have to get information,” Buchanan said. “The more time they have to get to safety, so these wireless emergency alerts really could save your life one day.”

Buchanan said earlier this month in Connecticut, campers and counselors were in a sports complex covered by a dome when a tornado was headed right for them.

“The manager received a wireless alert and ushered everyone to safety. And the dome was hit two minutes after the alert," Buchanan said.

Here in Arizona tornadoes aren’t too common.

But in the past year statewide, we did have a whopping 264 warnings for flash floods. And since July 1, we’ve tallied 10 dust storm alerts.

One of those dust storm alerts happened to come at an awkward moment: right when the Glendale City Council was discussing the fate of the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team.

As the public weighed in on the team’s future, several phones in the room went off, causing Glendale Mayor Jerry Weiers some consternation.

“Please turn that off,” Weiers told the room.

When Weiers was told it was a dust storm alert, he quipped back:

“Sit on it or something, I don’t know. It is not fair to people speaking when those things go off.”

Wireless Emergency Alerts began more a year ago, but many of us are getting them for the first time this storm season because our smartphones are getting smarter.

“When this rolled out, there was maybe ten devices that were compatible with the wireless emergency alerts, but today we offer over 50 devices,” said Jenny Weaver, a spokesperson for Verizon.

The list is growing, and varies by cell phone provider.

Just last month, newer iPhones on AT&T started getting the alerts for the first time.

Lucky for you, the phone companies say the alerts are completely free. And no, they actually aren’t mandatory.

“If customers decide they want to opt out, that is definitely a possibility,” Weaver said.

Except presidential alerts. No one can opt out of those.

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