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What's Up With Those Screeching Texts You Got At An Ungodly Hour This Morning

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Sleep, interrupted (Cell phone screenshot by Emma Gallegos/LAist)
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People like to make fun of Southern Californians' reactions to the rain, but rain here isn't quite like rain everywhere else. It snarls our already notorious traffic, the scorched hillsides turn into rivers of mud, the cement jungle of the city can't handle much runoff and what runoff there is pollutes the ocean. Even rain during an awful drought like this can feel like a mixed blessing. That being said, was sending out a predawn alert to the better part of Los Angeles County during the wee hours of the morning necessary?

LAist talked to a meteorologist from the National Weather Service who explained the program behind this morning's rather rude awakening.

John Dumas, a science officer with the National Weather Service, said that the alert came through the Wireless Emergency Alert system. Any time the agency issues an alert that is considered a "warning"—and that could be a severe hail warning, a tornado warning or, in the case of this morning, a flash flood warning—cell phone users in the affected area are going to get a cell phone alert. Once the National Weather Service sends out a warning, there's nothing they can do to stop it from getting to your cell phone. It doesn't matter what hour it is, the alert goes out automatically. It's part of the same system that sends out an alert over your TV system, too, Dumas explains.

Dumas said three alerts went out last night for Southern California: one for a broad swatch of eastern Los Angeles County, one in the area around Camarillo Springs and another one for Northeastern Los Angeles County. The National Weather Service draws a box around the affected areas, and everyone who had a cell phone near the cell towers gets the alerts.

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It makes sense to send out an alert when lives were in danger: there were some seriously dangerous mudslides and flooding in the area around the Colby Fire in Glendora and Azusa and Camarillo Springs. Dumas said that even Los Angeles proper was at serious risk of flooding when the rain was coming down at the rate of one or two inches per hour: "In a place like Los Angeles, which is almost all cement, that can cause some big problems there, too."

But when I was rudely awakened at 2:41 a.m. and then again at 3:38 a.m. for what turned out to be nothing (at least in my corner of Eagle Rock), I wasn't feeling so generous. I support the alerts in theory, but I told Dumas that last night's alerts were the kind of thing that would make me—and many others—consider opting out of the system. (If you do want to opt out, here is an explainer.)

In Los Angeles County, we're actually lucky. Dumas says that in some counties, there isn't a way to target alerts and so every time there's a warning, the whole county gets bombarded with a screeching text. Dumas said that they are working hard to make the alerts more targeted and useful, but it's difficult because it requires so many different groups working together, including government agencies and cell phone carriers. He said, "It’s a challenge because there are so many people that have a hand in this technology."

There have been worries about alert fatigue from the get-go. When FEMA rolled out the system, there were worries early on that the system could get overused. Bob Hoever, a director at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, told the Associated Press, "My biggest concern is that people, if they don't understand what it means ... will opt out of the program. And it's critical that we continue to have their participation."

One of the first in Southern California went out for a kidnapped 16-year-old girl in August 2013—and it was a bit too late on a Monday night for some cell users to feel like it was all that useful to be worth the trouble. Monterey Park Fire Department accidentally sent out one last December, but at least it was only the middle of the afternoon.