Communication Currents

“Mobile-izing” Emergency Alerts: Improving Public Warning Messages Delivered over Mobile Devices

April 1, 2015
Digital Communication & Gaming

In April 2012, emergency management officials were able to broadcast Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs, pronounced “we-uhs”) via the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) to cellular phones and other mobile devices to help notify people of imminent hazards. WEAs are 90-character, geographically targeted emergency messages sent by government alerting authorities through the nation’s mobile telecommunications networks. WEAs allow officials to directly notify at-risk populations where they live and work. With the advent of WEAs, mobile communication of alerts and warnings is rapidly gaining momentum. However, the use of WEAs has outpaced investigation of their benefits, limitations, and actual and potential consequences. Our article outlines a theoretical and applied communications research agenda for public warning messages delivered over mobile devices.


WEA, the result of a partnership between the FEMA, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the Science and Technology Directorate of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is designed to enhance public safety. WEA was established in response to President George W. Bush’s Executive Order 13407, “Public Alert and Warning System,” issued in 2006, as well as the 2006 Warning, Alert, and Response Network Act (the “WARN Act”). Both aimed to create an effective and reliable system to warn the American people in the event of a war, terrorist attack, natural disaster, and other hazards.

A WEA message resembles a text message and may be specified to include information on the hazard, the time and location of the event, as well as a prescriptive action that recipients should take. The message also includes information about the agency issuing the alert. WEAs differ from standard text messages in that they are geo-targeted and broadcast through a wireless channel that remains unaffected during times of network congestion. WEAs also are not counted towards texting limits on a recipient’s wireless plan, are uniquely displayed on a device’s screen, and are accompanied by a distinctive tone and vibration. Furthermore, WEAs for imminent threats, such as rapid-onset natural disasters, are an opt-out system, meaning that U.S. residents with WEA-enabled mobile devices automatically receive WEAs from participating wireless carriers and must choose to block them through their device’s settings if they do not want to receive them. At 90 characters, WEAs are intended as a kind of first alert.

WEAs and Public Response: The Need for Research 

On December 16, 2012, the National Weather Service (NWS) issued a blizzard warning for the Cascade region of Washington State. Unlike previous NWS warnings that had been disseminated via television and radio, NWS also issued a WEA to mobile device users in the area. The warning stated: “Severe alert: Blizzard Warning this area til 6:00 p.m. PST Mon. Prepare. Avoid Travel. Check media. -NWS.” T-Mobile and Verizon customers in the Seattle area reported receiving the warning message, while AT&T and Sprint customers did not. Objecting to being issued a text-type message that was “long on drama and short on details,” one local commentator declared, “Until the alerts have more useful contextual information, my recommendation is to turn them off.” Government authorities have since undertaken public education efforts to better inform people about the system.

WEAs were rolled out prior to research investigating their benefits, limitations, and actual and potential consequences. To address this critical gap in scholarship and public understanding, in our article, we recommend integrating literature from the fields of public warning, instructional crisis communication, and mobile health (mHealth) communication. Combining these literatures, we outline a theoretical and applied communication research agenda for public warning messages delivered over mobile devices.

Toward a Research Agenda 

Assessing and improving the effectiveness of warning messages delivered over mobile devices entails difficult theoretical and practical problems that need to be addressed. Given their timeliness, location specificity, and shareability, these messages could potentially save lives and reduce harm. Our assessment is that given what public warning, instructional crisis communication, and mHealth scholars already know about message effectiveness, the odds of writing a successful, yet brief, mobile warning message from scratch during a rapid-onset emergency appear slim until further research is conducted. A lack of understanding about how audiences interpret and respond to them could potentially create possibilities for serious error, including the loss of life and property.

As we explain in our article, scholars and practitioners need to better understand how hazard-related information can best be communicated in short, text-based warning messages:

  • How could a map or other location-related information best be communicated within these messages?
  • How should mobile warnings be configured and disseminated to minimize delay and maximize personalization?
  • How do mobile warnings interact with other forms of written, verbal, and visual communication?
  • Are mobile warnings currently too short to integrate learning style elements that reduce the influence of contextual and receiver factors?
  • What information needs to be included in a mobile warning to maximize self-efficacy among groups that differ in terms of age, education, or ability?

A comprehensive research agenda should aim to investigate mobile warning messages in relation to several themes that cut across public warning, instructional crisis communication, and mHealth.

In sum, our research explains why a communication research agenda focused on the study of public warning messages delivered over mobile devices is now needed, indicates where scholars have already begun to contribute to its development, and points to where future communication inquiry might lead.

About the author (s)

Hamilton Bean

University of Colorado at Denver

Associate Professor

Jeannette Sutton

University of Kentucky

Assistant Professor

Stephanie Madden

University of Maryland, College Park

Doctoral Candidate

Michele M. Wood

California State University, Fullerton

Associate Professor

Dennis S. Mileti

University of Colorado, Boulder

Professor Emeritus

Brooke F. Liu

University of Maryland, College Park

Associate Professor