People Finally Realizing That SMS Isn't Good For Emergency Alerts

from the about-time dept

Only two years or so after we questioned why anyone would seriously consider the notoriously unreliable SMS text messaging system for emergency alerts, the mobile trade group 3G Americas has released a research report stating the same thing. Basically, the system isn’t reliable or efficient, and in an emergency is likely to get overloaded quickly. It’s not clear why it took anyone until now to notice this, but hopefully no one was seriously considering using SMS for emergency alerts.

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Comments on “People Finally Realizing That SMS Isn't Good For Emergency Alerts”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The problem with SMS for emergencies is not that the service is unreliable. The messages will usually make it to their destination. The problem is that sometimes the messages can take a while to get delivered if the network is overloaded. In most emergencies, time is crucial and if messages take an hour to get delivered they are practically useless.

Anti-troll says:



There always has to be one trying to make fun of a serious topic, especially one where peoples’ safety and life are potentially at risk.

I guess the word emergency just turns some jackasses on.

Back on topic.

As many communication systems (both public and emergency) tend to get overwhelmed during emergencies and crises e.g. 9/11, Katrina, etc, having redundancy is not only prudent but necessary.

Recently, Pennsylvania launched ReadyNotifyPA (, its own emergency text system.

At first I was pretty excited having it as another means of being quickly informed of emergencies within my locale, however, I got pretty disappointed soon enough since I seem to get 4 to 5 alerts per day about minor road disruptions, which are not emergencies by any stretch of the imagination.

In my mind having a major road way actually closed for example, might be emergency as opposed to slow traffic, which is more of an inconvenience.

Having a system that works and is reliable is one thing, having one “crying wolf” or something like it probably more problematic.

illegalprelude (user link) says:

I like txts?

All I know is, if im out, im not catching the news and granted I got 5 emails hooked up to me, but then again, I have the iPhone. Most people just have a normal phone and every phone can get a text message but not all can get emails like the iPhone/SmartPhones.

So if then their gonna do a calling campaign, I dont pickup numbers I dont recognize so personally, im all for TXT Alert. Sure there should be other methods, no need to put all the eggs in one basket but im all for it.

Listen says:

You people

First of all text messages are extremely reliable and fast if you are on the same carrier. they simple put thier customers communications aheads of others. verizon will let any verizon texts come to my phone within seconds, yet a tmobile phone to a verizon can take a minute, and up to 24 hours.

30,0000 one way texts is not so bad. Congestion is when people have unlimited texts, and are texting back and forth like its a friggn aim chat. 30000 people having text convos between 20-25 messages turns into 600000-750000 messages in 5 minutes?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Why?

has nothing to do with that, in any local extensive simultanious use will tie up phone services. text messages and email will also be tied up however, when phone services are tied up your call doesn’t just sit in a queue leaving you on hold until you can get through. Instead you receive a response telling you to try again. With SMS and email if the lines are bogged down, the message is queued and sent when there is a line available.

So its not that SMS is unreliable, its SMS as and immediate communication method in an emergency is unreliable. And that is only because you cannot guarantee that the message will get there immediately, or in 12 hours. it will eventually get there unless the emergency is widespread and the TelCo’s are down as well. If this is the case, get home, bar the doors, cover the windows, turn off the lights, get your gun and hide in the basement.

Chunky Vomit says:

I think having a variety of resources for emergency alerts is a good idea. I live in a bad weather area in Kansas. We are plagued by tornados every spring.

Interestingly enough, I have found that my cell phones receive weather alerts and warnings faster than my weather radio does.

But there have been times that the weather radio didn’t go off, or was turned off and the SMS came in, and other times still when the SMS never arrived, but the weather radio went off.

Redundancy isn’t exactly a bad thing, especially when there is an F4 outside your door. And just for the record, we got a direct hit from an F4, the cell phone is the only way we knew that something was a miss that evening.

Ross says:

I like it

My university(35,000) also has just started using SMS as a form of emergency alerts. We actual got to see it in action earlier this week. We had a blackout on campus and about 45 mins later, I got a text message saying what was going on.

Now while it definitely isnt useful for saying “Hey there is a tornado coming down the road, GTFO,” it is definitely useful to communicate to a large body of people in an way that you know will get to most everybody.

We also just got an emergency sound system installed over campus. Now that is useful in the above example…as long as you are within earshot

Jody Overshiner (user link) says:


Having been through hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike, I have to say that SMS was a great tool. Sure it may take a while to get messages when the systems are congested, but when land lines, internet, and mobile phones all fail, SMS still works. It was the only way to communicate with others and find out who needed help and who was or wasn’t ok.

Storms like these destroy all of the electrical and communications infrastructure in huge geographic areas. What we have seen is that marginally functioning cell phone towers running on backup batteries can manage thousands of SMS messages and not a single phone call.

People can say what they want about it but the fact remains that, when events happen like hurricanes, tornadoes, etc, SMS is usually the last communication medium to go down.

It can have a decent time lag on congested systems so just in time communication may be an issue. But it certainly has a tremendous value.

The focus here should be mandating that all US cell phone companies have more efficient systems in place for managing the messages, cutting the time lag, and making it a true just in time, first response type of system.

In the meantime, everyone I have talked to on the Gulf Coast that was not familiar with SMS (primarily older people) is now learning how to use them. After these storms they realized that SMS was the only way to communicate into or out of the impact zone.

Finally, I was home during hurricane Gustav. I immediately lost power, internet, and phone service. I had a friend in Ohio sitting at his computer monitoring the storm and txting me the entire time. I was able to reply, we saw no time lag and as a result, I was prepared for each stage of the storm before it happened. I communicated with family around the country and others that were in the storm as well. When the winds stopped, we already knew where everyone was and how they were doing.

It is not perfect, but at the moment, it’s as close as we have. And it can be made better.

Anonymous Coward says:


you can only make it better to an extent before you’re just throwing money into the trash can. for it to be perfectly reliable 100% of the time with time sensitive communication. Every individual person would need their own data path, possibly including their own server. the only time sensitive communication that is reliable for immediate communication is radio

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Too Sweeping A Judgement

Mike, you’re making too sweeping a judgement here, as is the report from 3G Americas.

1) 3G Americas is a CDMA Development Group spinoff, largely funded and driven by Qualcomm. SMS is a technology inherent in the GSM system. Text messages for CDMA phones were kludged together after the GSM carriers proved the popularity. CDMA carriers don’t actually have SMS, they have “text messaging”. See any possibility for bias here?

2) If someone says “SMS sucks for emergencies.” then may I ask, “Got anything better?”. And if radio is better, does it hurt to also blast out SMS messages?

3) Everyone in the comments here talks about how some SMS messages took forever to arrive. True enough. But do you really think it is impossible to design a better system for emergency notices using SMS? The SS7 network, on which SMS travels is extremely reliable. The main kinks are in interconnects between carriers, email-SMS gateways, and third party SMS management firms and carriers. If a public agency were to work directly with the major carriers, they could easily design an SMS delivery system that was NOT swamped during emergencies, and that was reliable. Just cuz things suck doesn’t mean they need to. There are a few vendors working on doing this the right way as we speak.

4) In 2000, I was working at Disney on an ESPN service that would SMS sports fans in case of a touchdown, home run, etc. I evaluated numerous SMS delivery firms, and also the possibility to send the messages ourselves. In the end, I chose NOT to build the service, because the reliability of SMS was too low, the latency too high, and the likelihood of pissing off a football fan with a touchdown alert for Monday night football at 4AM Tuesday morning was too high. But those were early days, and even they there were ways to work around the latency, but it was just not worth it – at least not for a touchdown. I can see tornado warnings being worth a little more effort.

So, I think it’s too early to throw in the towel on this idea.

Sankaran Nampoothiri says:

Extremely superficial

Here are Traynor’s arguments and my refutation on each of those:

Argument 1. Cellular networks are not designed to delivery emergency-scale traffic loads

REFUTATION: Any cellular network planning to offer or carry emergency service would be designed to carry these loads! Otherwise it does not even qualify to be an ’emergency service’ and therefore would be out of the scope of this study of emergency service

Argument 2: Cellular networks are not the Internet

REFUTATION: Yes. They are not meant to be. SMS is an aletrnate medium, with its own reach protocols. (However, the same cellular network can also deliver the internet on the right handsets)

Arg3: Targeting users in a specific location is extremely difficult

REFUTATION: Difficult??? What emergency service was studied??? Isn’t an emergency service expected to be difficult anyway? An emergency servic qualifies to be called so only when it anticipates such difficulties and provides for them.

Arg 4: There is no way to authenticate the source of messages, making fraudulent alerts easy to send

REFUTATION: This is THE most fundamental aspect of ANY alert service! Source authentification is a basic and preliminary aspect of an emergency alert service design and architecture. There are absolutely foolproof methods available.

Arg 4. SMS is not a real-time service. Message delivery order is not always predictable

REFUTATION: True, if the emergency service is designed to run on existing bandwidths. However, if provided for these are indeed managable. Like any other delivery system, there indeed are issues of network failure, communication breaks etc. But that does not make SMS an unreliable system. It as reliable as any system available now, if not the most reliable.

Any emergency service must be sized for bandwidths, server capacities, poeak loads and the like. If these are done there is no reason why any of the above issue need to in play.

Martyburns says:

SMS was never meant to be reliable

It wasn’t even originally intended as something consumers could use. It was only after all the communication specs were finalised/implemented that some bright spark thought it would be useful. Imagine if he had patented the idea and now received even 0.01p per message sent . He would be, like, loaded.

SeaTec says:

Demand a reliabel emergency meda

I think a push should occure to make the Cell companies talk to eachtoher and make the sms system reliabel with a garuantee that message are delivered within on minute. With todays technologies and redundancies. That isn’t to much to ask, is it? Am i the only one who thinks its time to have a reliable vehicle to contact Americas citizens in a case of emergency like tornadoes and other events?

hegemon13 says:

Not so bad

As a supplementary system, it is not such a bad idea, especially for the hearing-impaired who can’t hear an alert siren. Plus, a text message could be used to give a lot more information and/or tips along with the warning. Certainly, SMS alone is not a viable system, but as an addition to an existing system, I can see it being useful.

Jim says:

Treat it like a comms/node problem?

If you define success as “100% of the emergency SMS messages going through quickly” – then yes, SMS will not look like the right answer. However, if you define success as “100% of the target audience getting the message”, then SMS may be perfect for some populations.

Say I’m on a campus and send an SMS blast (tornado warning). If only 25% of the messages get through in time for people to take cover there is a good chance that 100% of the people will have been warned by word of mouth repeating.

How many times have you heard of a snow day through word of mouth rather than direct from a news source? In densely populated areas emergency SMS may be near perfect for emergencies because people share information. In large but sparsely populated areas SMS is probably bad for mass alerts (but probably an acceptable supplement to other tools).

uofi says:

Universit of Illinois

The University of Illinois, after the Virginia thing, implemented an emergency response system that would include an email and sms text message to everyone on campus. I couldn’t believe that they were actually going to go through with it, because shortly before this we had a huge snow that canceled school. During this huge snow they sent an email declaring that school was can canceled. Of course that email bottled up in the system and most people didn’t receive the email until well after they were supposed to be at work. I couldn’t imagine that the TXT system would work any better.

dkp says:

it works

I have attended two different colleges and both of them send emergency alerts by email text and im within a matter of minutes the entire campus knows. there are different priorities that can be placed on messages and they come through as urgent. this is how we here about closings and other emergencies that is why I always check my phone first thing in the morning in the winter. also the cell network works even without normal power.

Ham Operator says:

Amateur radio.

RadioJockey is correct (albeit a tad underwhelming as a salesman); amateur radio is the communication medium of last resort for civilians (and sometimes gov’t agencies). SMS is an important complement, though, because its user base is so much greater. So it’s a good thing it fills some of the gap between mobile voice services working and only amateur radio working.

But it never hurts to have more prepared ham operators out there. If you’re curious, start here:

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