Under clear skies this morning, hundreds of thousands of people across Kansas and Missouri received an urgent alert on their phone warning of a tornado. The alert read, “EMERGENCY ALERT – National Weather Service: TORNADO WARNING in this area until 10:15 am CST. Take shelter now in a basement of an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building. If you are outdoors, in a mobile home, or in a vehicle, move to the closest substantial shelter and protect yourself from flying debris. Check media.” However, the message went out in error.
— the Weatherboy (@theWeatherboy) March 2, 2021
At 10:00am, the National Weather Service office in Kansas City encouraged people to spread word of a tornado drill. On Twitter they wrote, “This is a tornado DRILL. If this were an actual tornado warning, consider what you would do to shelter and stay safe.” While the Tweet about a drill got out, a phone alert of the same didn’t happen.
At 10:26am, the same National Weather Service office followed-up. “Concerning the recent tornado drill. The National Weather Service issued a properly coded TEST tornado warning. Somewhere in the Wireless Emergency Alert System chain, the message was misinterpreted as an actual warning and sent it out that way. We are looking into the cause.”
Outdoor sirens were also alarmed, but that was done as part of the test. If people hadn’t known a test or drill was underway, they would have received the cell phone alert while hearing sirens go off in their community. In this part of the country, test sirens often go off on the first tuesday of each month at 10 am.
Many states around the country use the first week of March as a severe weather season preparedness time, with daily drills, tests, and press alerts to keep the public aware of the dangers of severe weather, such as tornadoes and severe thunderstorms.
The National Weather Service uses the WEA system to broadcast emergency weather alerts to people within specific zones. In December 2019, the system was updated to enhance emergency information about floods.
Cell phone alert systems haven’t been trouble-free however. In January of 2018, throughout the state of Hawaii, residents received text messages and saw urgent messages broadcast across TV screens and through all radio stations warning of an imminent missile attack. The emergency message distributed through cell phones and TV/radio stations warned people: “Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.” However, that message was also inadvertently issued as a real alert rather than a drill. It took the state more than 35 minutes to broadcast a corrective message, after hundreds of thousands of residents and tourists scurried for shelter.