The answer has to do with the technology behind the Wireless Emergency Alert system — which, unlike text messages, is currently limited in what information it can convey. But all that is about to change. On Thursday, federal regulators voted to approve updates to the WEA system that could make those cellphone alerts much more useful.
The new rules will lengthen WEA messages from the current 90 characters to 360 characters, a move that will enable emergency management officials to include phone numbers, Web addresses and other additional information.
What's more, the upgraded system will be able to target messages with more geographic specificity, meaning that you'll no longer be "alerted" to flash floods or tornadoes that are actually happening miles away. The new alerts will support Spanish, and they'll also expand beyond weather, terrorism and missing-child alerts to inform users about steps they can take to stay safe during emergencies, such as remembering to boil drinking water.
Regulators say they hope these changes will reduce "alert fatigue" among people who today may ignore the messages because they find them uninformative or irrelevant to their needs.
"Millions of people who live in these communities could miss out on potentially life-saving information because WEA’s current brushstroke is too broad," said Ajit Pai, a Republican commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission.
But there's one critical thing the new rules don't do: Add support for multimedia such as photos and video. It's possible the FCC may revisit that in the future, but it isn't addressed in Thursday's decision.
That's not acceptable, said Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission.
"By no means should we stop here," she said. "Vague directives in text about where to find more information … are not good enough."