The Korea Herald


Alert fatigue: Text warnings fail to hit home

Behind the scenes of incessant alert messages lie 220 public offices caught in the quandary of accountability

By Moon Joon-hyun

Published : July 19, 2023 - 11:18

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A smartphone with emergency notices is illustrated in heavy rain. (123rf) A smartphone with emergency notices is illustrated in heavy rain. (123rf)

Between 7:58 a.m. and 7:47 p.m on July 11, Cho Young-eun, a resident in Guro-gu, southern Seoul, received a total of 13 alerts from six different public offices regarding heavy rain.

Five were from the Ministry of Public Administration and Safety, three were from the Korea Forest Service, two were from the Seoul Metropolitan Government and one each from district offices of Yongsan-gu, Gwanak-gu and Seongdong-gu.

Mostly titled "Public Safety Alert," the messages urged the recipients to evacuate from flood-prone areas, avoid walking anywhere near pools of water and to check on parents living alone.

"While I appreciate the precautions, there were simply too many to read properly," noted Cho.

While people like Cho living in Seoul districts near Guro-gu were bombarded with such alerts, including the “Exceptional Rain Event” emergency alert, this critical rain event alert did not reach Chungcheong and North Gyeongsang Province, which were hit the hardest by the torrential rain on Saturday.

The alert inconsistency arises because the "Exceptional Rain Event" alert, currently in trial in the Seoul Capital Area since June, isn't nationwide yet. The Korean Meteorological Administration plans to expand this system countrywide by May 2024.

The challenge of a nationwide alert system

As such, the high-priority alert was absent in provinces like Chungcheong which saw rainfall beyond 70mm per hour on July 14, even though the emergency alert is applicable for rainfall over 50mm per hour or 90mm in 3 hours.

While admitting the possibility that timely warnings could have minimized damage in heavily affected areas like the Chungcheong Province, the KMA maintained that resource constraints necessitate a gradual rollout.

The country's disjointed emergency alert system in question, which has been designed as a tool to protect the public in the event of time-sensitive incidents, natural disasters and, sometimes, North Korea launching a missile southward, has increasingly become a focus of debate for their bureaucratic inefficiency.

"The issue boils down to having too many cooks in the kitchen" said professor Kim Youn Hee from the department of fire administration and disaster management at Dongeui University, referring to the service that has been functional since 2004.

Currently, around 20 central agencies and over 200 local governments can send alert messages without approval from the Safety Ministry.

"But there is a historical context that can explain this chaos," she said. She pointed to a series of criticisms toward the government's delayed or missed responses to disasters, compounded by the lack of a comprehensive management system. Paradoxically, she noted that emergency alerts somehow have become a tool for public servants to demonstrate action and avoid blame, partly due to the structure of Korea's bureaucracy.

220 alert senders in one nation

Until 2017, only the Ministry of Public Administration and Safety held the authority to send messages. The turning point was the 5.8 magnitude earthquake in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province in 2016, where the ministry was late by nine minutes in sending the alert messages. It failed to reach over half of the affected individuals due to network overload.

"Rather than urging action, the media ended up shaming many public servants," said Ryu Sang-yeop, a professor of public administration from Yonsei University, reflecting the media sentiment at that time.

The ministry had not much choice but to respond promptly with "a rather simplistic alternative that could be quickly implemented," which was to expand emergency alert authority to other provinces and cities, he said. It proved resoundingly effective the following year, as people received alert messages almost immediately after an earthquake hit Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province, in late 2017. In 2019, the authority was expanded once again to smaller individual districts and counties.

A 2022 study by University of Seoul researchers found that each additional disaster-related alert message sent between 2011 and 2019 reduced recovery costs by about 100 million won between.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, resulting in a surge in the number of emergency alerts. According to the Safety Ministry, an average of 54,402 alerts were sent each year during the pandemic, compared to 414 a year between 2005 and 2019.

The problem was that most of these alerts were public safety alerts -- the least severe type of warning that falls under the emergency alert umbrella.

As safety alerts were heavily used for more than two years as daily bulletins, it compounded "alert fatigue," said professor Ryu. It is because public safety alerts by definition can encompass any incident or potential hazard, like severe weather events, increasing their frequency.

"We acknowledge that alert messages might be saturated at times," said Lee Chung-hyun, a communications official from the Safety Ministry. Alert messages are sent by different offices because each serves an independent role, he said.

Nationwide alerts are sent by the Safety Ministry, “real-time accident reports” come from regional and district offices like Yongsan-gu in Seoul and landslide warnings are from the Forest Service, he explained.

Some redundancy, however, is inevitable, because speed is most important in helping people, according to the official.

In addition, the ministry cannot cancel alerts sent by other bodies, and it should not presume to "know better than those on the ground," he stated.

Building a centralized system

"It's really hard to get the best of both worlds -- speed and effectiveness. Civil servants are trapped in the dilemma because they have to risk responsibility for any proactive action that goes beyond their defined role," said disaster management professor Kim.

The public and experts call for a central alert system at the level of the Safety Ministry that could reduce this clutter. However, it requires a "colossal effort" involving intricate public-private cooperation, something that's rare even for advanced countries, she said.

Yonsei professor Ryu proposed a two-tiered approach as a temporary measure. He suggested, "The Ministry of Public Administration and Safety could be the control tower, the sole broadcaster of nationwide alerts from the executive branch, comprising 18 ministries and 18 agencies including the Forest Service and the Meteorological Administration. Meanwhile, lower-level municipalities like Seoul districts could send their own localized safety alerts."

"Given the unpredictable nature of emergencies, it's unfair to shoulder the government with all missteps," said Ryu. "However, it's also true that without centralized leadership and a concerted effort among various public bodies, our current system can drown vital warnings in a flood of alerts."