This morning at 1:42 a.m. I was soundly asleep with my iPhone in Do Not Disturb mode sitting in an iHome docking station next to my bed. A minute later, I woke in a panic to a blaring alarm. The alarm was loud, lasted several seconds and was unlike any alert or ringtone I've ever heard from an iOS device or computer. It sounded like my home security system singling an intruder. With adrenaline rushing I lept to the alarm control panel in my bedroom frazzled and praying for a false alarm and unsure what to do next. Bleary eyed, I squinted at the alarm panel and all zones were reporting secure. I couldn't figure out what was going on. The alarm stopped within a few seconds and I instinctively grabbed my phone and noticed an odd alert on my home screen indicating an AMBER alert had been issued in my area. Now completely awake and thinking more clearly, I realized the alarm that caused such a panic came from my phone, not my security system.
An AMBER alert is issued in the United States when a child is missing and suspected in danger. In this case, an AMBER alert was issued for the entire state of Florida when 2-year-old Denise Hernandez was discovered missing around 11:30 p.m. in South Florida. Thankfully, the child was found hours later near her home unharmed.
Emergency alerts are a new feature available in iOS 6 based on carrier availability and region. You can tell if your carrier and region supports the system by choosing Settings > Notifications > and scrolling all the way to the bottom to see if you have a section for "Government Alerts" where you'll find the option to toggle them on and off. The notifications are part of the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) and relies on the SMS system to broadcast push notifications to iPhones and other smartphones to warn about weather alerts, AMBER alerts and other "Presidential alerts". With the widespread use of cell phones having such a system is a good idea, but my experience today showed that there are some serious kinks to work out.
For starters, I had no idea this emergency notification system existed on my iPhone until I received my first notification this morning. I tend to be on top of this technology stuff, so clearly some user education is in order. The notification I received was so different from any other iOS notification I had no idea what it was and mistook it for my home security system going off. Perhaps my reaction was unwarranted, but I imagine many people were startled, especially given the hour. I understand in the event of an emergency you need an alert that will get a user's attention but a more familiar tone that perhaps escalates in volume until acknowledged would have the same result without being so jarring. (Remember, my Do Not Disturb was activated so I had no exceptions of any notifications coming through my iPhone. until morning.) Finally, the information provided was not helpful or relevant. In this instance, the AMBER alert was issued to the entire state rather than just the region where the child was missing. I was referred to local news sources for more information but there was none available until hours later. It wasn't until morning when I could do some serious searching I discovered the child was missing from South Florida. I understand the importance of getting the word out quickly in a situation like this and if I was a parent of a missing child I'd want everyone in the state awake and looking for my son or daughter, but 400 miles away, asleep in my bed at 2:00 a.m., what really can I do?
Unfortunately, if these issues aren't resolved many iPhone users will simply disable the notifications rather than risk being awoken in the middle of the night, completely defeating the purpose of the system.