If a major disaster were to hit San Francisco, we’d probably first turn to our phones — our hyperconnected link to the outside world.
Yet for a number of all-too-human reasons, those devices may prove far less useful in an emergency than they could be.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Thursday pointed out a flaw in Apple’s iPhones: The phones cannot receive FM radio signals and Pai believes Apple is refusing to activate a chip that would enable the feature. “It is time for Apple to step up to the plate and put the safety of the American people first,” Pai said.
Currently, local officials’ tool for sending out urgent messages to smartphones is the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system. Distinct from text messages and app notifications, the alert system lets officials target warnings to specific geographical areas. The system is also used for Amber Alert missing-child warnings.
While it’s not affected by network congestion caused by a flood of calls or text messages, the system relies on the existing infrastructure of cellular towers, which is vulnerable to storms and physical damage. St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands lost Internet access and phone service this week after a generator powering a cell phone tower was stolen.
In disaster zones and rural areas, radio broadcasts could reach people when cellular networks are weak or missing, officials involved in emergency preparedness say.
Even when cell phone networks are working well, there’s another obstacle that those responsible for managing emergencies may create themselves: People may turn a deaf ear to too-frequent or ill-conceived alerts — or turn them off altogether.
Smartphone owners can opt out of almost all government alerts. Only messages sent by the president can override that choice.
The pressure on Apple and other phone-makers to add radio support comes as parts of the nation reel from devastating storms, prompting discussions about improving communications with people in danger.
In hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, radio broadcasts are playing a vital role, said Joe Hillis, operations director for the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center. One Univision radio station in Puerto Rico continued to broadcast even as Hurricane Maria tore the roof off its building.
“Emergency instructions such as whether to shelter in place or evacuate an area could mean the difference between life and death,” Hillis said in an email.
Local radio also provides information to people traveling through an unfamiliar area, such as flooded roads, said Dianna Bryant, an associate professor of crisis and disaster management at the University of Central Missouri. Global Internet radio stations mostly playing music won’t do that, she pointed out.
Many smartphones have radio tuners inside them, but some manufacturers — Apple is the most notable — have refused to support them in the phones’ hardware and software. Several major Android smartphone makers, including Samsung, HTC and LG have activated the FM chips in their phones.
Apple said in a statement that its newer iPhone 7 and 8 models lack chips and antennas to receive FM signals. “It is not possible to enable FM reception in these products,” Apple said. The company did not address whether earlier models have an FM chip. It’s not clear if Apple could turn on a radio feature in those models through a software update or if changes to the hardware would be necessary to add radio.
Some experts speculated Apple may be skipping FM radio because it might discourage people from signing up for Apple Music, its $9.99-per-month service that streams songs over the Internet.
“The last thing they would want is to create a competition in a space where they think they can own it,” said Paul Brenner, president of NextRadio, maker of a free app that connects users to local radio stations.
If wireless networks are down, users can still use NextRadio’s app to access the radio tuners in their smartphones. Brenner says usage went up in the areas affected by the recent hurricanes.
San Francisco faced a tempest-in-a-text-message emergency of its own making on Wednesday when the city sent, for the first time, emergency alerts to tens of thousands of mobile phone users warning them about a hardly menacing heat wave, when the weather was a full 20 degrees cooler than the Sept. 1 record-setting 106-degree scorcher.
Not all residents were thrilled to get the message.
“Got an EXTREME TEXT ALERT, annoying sound and all, warning me about the heat in SF,” tweeted Ryan Scott, an editorial director at Geekbox Media on Wednesday, saying the high temperature was 87 degrees where he was located. “Y’all are lightweights,” Scott commented.
Some residents complained on Twitter that they got the alert more than once. Officials with the city’s Department of Emergency Management said they were looking into the cause.
“Whenever you trigger some sort of system … the receptiveness of it varies according to a person’s needs,” said Kristin Hogan, a department spokeswoman. The aim of sending the alert was to encourage people to check on their neighbors and reach people who might not be aware of the heat danger, she said.
There’s some evidence that the alert was counterproductive. On Google, searches in the Bay Area for “turn off alert” and “turn off Amber Alert” surged Wednesday morning right after the heat warning was sent.
Hogan said the city does not want people to opt out of receiving emergency alerts.
Part of the challenge is figuring out the appropriate balance for how often people want to receive emergency information, said Bryant, the Missouri professor.
“Too frequently means that people are irritated and they don’t like it,” Bryant said. “If they are not frequent enough, you don’t know what it is.”
Wendy Lee is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org