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Japan's Earthquake Alerts Come Too Late For Some

And too often for others

2 min read

Although Japan’s earthquake early-warning system sent out millions of automated alerts via TV, radio, and cellphone last Friday to warn people of the 9.0-magnitude quake, not everyone got the message. The idea behind the alerts is to give people a brief window—typically tens of seconds—to mentally and physically prepare themselves before the arrival of the first tremors. But if you happened to be in Tokyo watching TV that day, you might have assumed all was right with the world. 

In a revealing video, “Yuanzency” juxtaposed the feeds from six Tokyo TV stations at the time of the quake:

Only NHK, in the upper left-hand corner, is on the ball. Seconds after seismometers detect the quake off the coast of northeastern Japan, an alert pops up, with a map showing the epicenter and the affected region; shortly afterward, live video of quivering buildings is being televised. The other five commercial stations continue with their usual afternoon programming and ads for another several minutes, by which time viewers would have already noticed that the room around them was violently shaking.

To be fair to the laggards, NHK, as a public broadcasting entity, is legally obligated to carry such emergency alerts from the Japan Meteorological Agency. But in the face of impending disaster, the interests of viewers should trump advertisers, shouldn’t they?

Meanwhile, though, some Japanese are complaining of early-warning fatigue. As of noon on 16 March (local time), the country had experienced 3 aftershocks greater than magnitude 7.0 and 48 larger than 6.0, and the vast majority of those had triggered an early-warning message. The problem isn’t so much the messages but the distinctive ringtone that prefaces each one:

Sounds pleasant enough—harmonic, slightly insistent yet not too hysterical. But for those who’ve received dozens of such alerts in the last week, the tone now carries an ominous association. “I duck underneath the table every time I hear the Warning. It’s like an air-raid siren,” tweeted UnConiglioNero.

Why not change the tune? suggests Kiske. “The sound of the warning is so scary. Can we get Brian Eno to compose a new melody?”

[Via Global Voices]

This is part of our ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.


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