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Complaints to 911

July 29, 2019

Have you been awakened by an alert on your mobile phone recently?  As the first step, the police come to a decision to issue an alert.  It might be to enlist the public’s help in finding a missing child, for example.  The police fill out a template and have the alert sent to all mobile phones in a specific area.  A siren sound and the message appears on all phones in that area.  I’ve never seen an alert myself because my phone is set to airplane mode all of the time.  Most people don’t do this: they hear and see the alert.

The message itself describes the incident and includes the instruction to call 911 with information that would aid police.

Most people accept the need for the alerts and do not complain about them.  In spite of this acceptance, there’s no reliable evidence that they are effective in resolving the issue.

People do have complaints, usually about being woken up by the alert.  Sometimes they are about the frequency of alerts.  Sometimes people object that they have no information to contribute.  The alert itself has no number for complaints, and no way to complain about the alert.  Some people call 911 to complain, even though 911 is intended only for emergencies.

The police response to these complaints is to denigrate the callers, often calling them stupid.  They do not tell them the proper way to complain.

There’s even a petition to fine complainers who call 911.  The problem with petitions is that they are one-sided: there’s no way to oppose the proposition, except by not signing.

The solution to mis-directed complaints is simple.  Tell them how to complain.  Stop calling them stupid.

What can be changed with the alert system?  Of course, there will always be complaints.  They are caused by compelling people to get alerts.  Most people want to help find a missing child, for example.  What we need is a mechanism to handle complaints.  Some of them are legitimate, after all.  Ignoring them is not a solution.

We could also have different levels of alerts, some of which would not be as invasive as the current alerts.  These could be used for different geographical areas, or at different times of day.

The alert system now is broken.  There’s no individual opt-out, except by turning the phone off.  People who want to use telecom services all the time are compelled to get the alerts too.  There’s also no effective way to complain about alerts.


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