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A blizzard warning for Tucson? Emergency alert a false alarm

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A blizzard warning for Tucson? Emergency alert a false alarm

CREATED Feb 20, 2013
Reporter: Kevin Keen
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Did you get the message? Perhaps you shouldn’t have.
An emergency weather alert popped up on cell phones across Southern Arizona ahead of Wednesday’s snow. Trouble was: the “"imminent severe alert” was only meant for a few. What went wrong? Why should we care? 9 On Your Side gets answers.
The message appeared on Rita Howard's phone while she was out to dinner Tuesday.
One alert read: “Imminent Severe Alert: Blizzard Warning this area til 11:00 PM MST Wed. Prepare. Avoid Travel. Check media. -NWS”.
“I'm thinking to myself: This is Tucson, Arizona,” said Howard, a long-time Tucsonan. “We don't get a lot of snow here. It was a little confusing.”
That specific warning, in fact, was only intended for those at higher, mountain elevations like Mt. Lemmon.
What was that message anyway and why did Howard get it?
Glen Sampson at the National Weather Service in Tucson explained people received the warning through the fairly new “wireless emergency alert” system.
The government meteorologist’s office had first highlighted the areas the blizzard warning applied to Tuesday then sent that information to cell companies like Verizon and AT&T.
“What the wireless carriers do is they look at what area where the alert occurs and then what cell phones are in that area,” the meteorologist-in-charge said, adding his staff selected specific geographic areas for the blizzard warning.
But this time, Sampson said it appeared cell carriers sent the message to people all over the county.
“It is a new system so there are some kinks to work out,” he said.
While warning too many people might not seem like a big deal, Howard told 9 On Your Side she didn’t take the alert seriously because it obviously didn’t apply to her.
Sampson fears a "cry wolf" situation in the future.
“After you've ‘cried wolf’ so many times, people are going to start ignoring you,” Sampson said. “The weather service does not want that to happen.”
Sampson said the many parties involved with the system -- including FEMA, the FCC and cell providers -- should work to address the concerns.
He added similar problem situations have popped up in other parts of the country like Seattle.
“It seems to be most effective in the eastern portion of the United States right,” Sampson said of the alert system. “There's a couple reasons for that. The terrain elevation is not as dramatic as we see in the west. Also, the counties are much smaller.”
Sampson did not know how many people received the blizzard warning.
Howard was relived there was ultimately no blizzard in the Old Pueblo
“I've seen the way Arizonans drive in the rain,” she said. “If there was snow on the road, I would not be out there.”