California fires: smart speakers and emergency alerts

Has anyone heard if the smart speaker companies (Amazon Echo, Google Home) plan to include emergency alert capability? An estimate 10% of households own a smart speaker, and Gartner (well-known for its forecasting accuracy) predicts 75% of US households will have a smart speaker by 2020.

Although most silicon valley tech nerds are still in the "invincible" years, were the california fires close enough to silicon valley that smart speaker developers might think an emergency could affect them. And an emergency alert capability in their smart speakers might be important?

I messaged the Nest guys a few weeks ago about that very issue. I
think it would be somewhat simple for them to put an RF module in
their Protect devices (smoke alarms) and a speaker to alert about the
issue. Since they are wifi-enabled, they could probably also arrange
a clearer audio feed over the internet with a fallback to RF if the
internet is down/power is out.


I’m quite surprised they didn’t send out a local emergency alert. I’ve gotten these for Tornadoes and amber alerts. Wildfires would be comparable to a Tornado IMO.

Jared Mauch

Note: Google Maps shows various alerts applicable to the region you are
looking at in maps.

So, assuming its Speaker is geolocated, Google would know if an alert is
applicable to its location and be able to send it to the unit.

How is geolocation achieved on these in-home devices? Is that tied to
the ~80% accuracy of general purpose IP geolocation? Do they have GPS?
Or is this done via account data in case it contains a street location?

This is different from alerts to cellphones "tethered" to a tower where
you get a better location info, even for E911 (exclude corner cases
where you are on a "mountain" top overlooking silicon Valley and lock
onto a tower further away). There you are effectively sending the alert
to the tower at a certain location and it multicasts it out to the phones
that are attached to it.


I know with Alexa products they just ask you for a postal code for weather
updates. Probably covers 99 percent of cases.

Like most news stories, its a little more complicated.

Napa, Sonoma sent an evacuation alert by Nixle, SoCoAlert and social media (i.e. Facebook). They also made reverse-911 calls to landlines, and sent police to knock on doors in neighborhoods.

Lake County sent an evacuation alert by both EAS and WEA (different from SMStext, like an Amber alert).

Orange County sent an evacuation alert by WEA.

The National Weather Service will forward alerts from local emergency management officials about evacuations and wildfires on request, but doesn't issue evacuation or wildfire alerts itself.

The reason given by emergency management officials was WEA (cell phones) and EAS (cable, radio and TV) would cause public panic and traffic jams because those systems alert everyone in an entire county.

One of the biggest challenges for emergency managers is reaching people in the middle of the night at homes as fewer people have landline phones. Smart speakers seem like an interesting way to notify people -- assuming the owner has a working broadband connection, allows "push" notifications, etc. While have a backup RF receiver would be nice, that's what a cell phone or weather alert radio is good at. Many emergency alerts are distributed through the Internet now, i.e. IPAWS, so smart speaker companies don't need to have special EAS receivers anymore.

Most of the smart speaker companies aggressively try to get users to add
their zip code/postal code to geolocate the unit. In addition to providing local weather and news, I assume it helps the smartspeaker companies target advertising.

And since I've already gotten a private email about it, end-user/consumer alerting devices can filter alerts. The user could block the 3am amber alerts, but still allow evacuation, and other extreme alerts.

Back to my question - Hey, smart speaker companies... Any plans?

I would think that Amazon knows where my Echo is since it's the same IP
that I order (way too much crap) from. Same with Google, maps knows where
home is.

It knows the usual delivery address. That's not necessarily the same thing.

It pairs with your phone via bluetooth, also wifi geolocation (e.g.
skyhook) tends to be fairly accurate in moderately high density
residential environments.

First, need to figure out if any smart speaker manufacturers have any plans to add emergency alerts to their product. Only need to solve the other problems if they do, otherwise it doesn't matter.

While VOIP phones needed exact addresses for 9-1-1 purposes, emergency alerts are rarely as specific as a city or county. An exact longitude/latitude would be nice to have, but probably not necessary for most emergency alerts. All the smart speakers ask for the user's location, at least a zip code, during the installation. And they seem to use the typical advertising network IP address geolocation.

It would be creepy if an emergency alert was too targetted. It may be better to keep it larger than a mile radius, rather than a single house.

Someone do a kickstarter already. I'll contribute. :wink:


It is theoretically simple to:

   1. Turn the address of your Smart Speaker into coordinates
     2. Receive ALL alerts and only act upon those that apply to your

This way it isn't creepy, because the emergency alert wasn't targeted to
you, but your device was aware enough to determine that you are in the
warned area.

Taking this further, let's have manufacturers build the location awareness
into the device, rather than the upstream service (e.g. Amazon, Google,
Apple). Your smart speaker receives a stream of ALL the alerts, and if you
are in a warned area, and you enable them, they alert you.

With the processing power on these speakers, and the likely small quantity
and amount of data per alert to determine if it applies, it should be
achievable while still protecting your smart speaker location.


It would be creepy if an emergency alert was too targetted. It may be better to keep it larger than a mile radius, rather than a single house.

Jean-Francois Mezei wrote:

A very solid, technical response. Unfortunately, most people don't react that way. The top questions from the public about Wireless Emergency Alerts is

How did FEMA get my phone number to send me WEA alerts?

The technical response is WEA doesn't use phone numbers, its a cell broadcast to all phones in the area. Its not your individual phone. Non-technical people hear blah-blah-technical-nonense; and still think WEA is someone texting their phone, which means FEMA must know their phone number.

A smart speaker suddenly announcing "There is a tornado warning in this area, would you like to hear more?" will probably freak-out those same non-technical people.

Simple programming problem.

Speaker: "There is a tornado warning in this area, would you like to hear more?"

User: "How did you get my phone number?"

Speaker: "You have opted out of tornado warnings"

Fast forward to the next tornado and techno-darwinism will take effect.

Alternatively you could have the speaker ramble on for 10-15 minutes
about how the weather alerting system works and maybe the end-user
will hang around long enough listening to the explanation...


Of course, on Amazon's Alexia, it will probably sound like this

Alexia: "There is an immediate evacuation due to wildfires in this area, would you like to order N95 facemasks with free shipping for Amazon Prime members?"

I have done what I could to turn off all of these alerts. My first experience with one was several years ago with an amber alert, making my phone emit strange and somewhat unsettling noises I didn't recognize. The amber alert was for an event some 400 miles away from me (I was in northern cal, and this was taking place in los angeles). How useless. So there is a control you can set to make sure you don't get these... everything up to but not including 'presidential alerts'. From what I see, this is really wrong. Yes I would like there to be a broadcast capability with some kind of gps fencing. No, I am not the police nor will I do their job and be their eyes and ears. Yes, I want to know if there is a major fire or other natural disaster in my current area but otherwise, no, don't bother me. Is that too much to ask?


Get out! The tornado is calling from your house!

re: alerts

last march, Montréal had a nasty winter storm which resulted in a
stretch of highway wheree all exits were blocked for hours (the
government had inquiry on what happened). Cars stuck in there in middle
of night for 6 hours.

Once police woke up, it would have been extremely helpful if they could
have broadcasted an alert to all cars in that area, giving them
instruction on how to turn around and exit "backwards").

Similarly, in Atlanta, when a piece of highway collapsed, such alerts
might have been helpful to all those drivers stuck and unable to proceed
(and needing to turn around). But this has to be very targetted to one
antenna, not an area.

The problem is that people get annoyed by alerts that don't concern them
and if they turn it off, then it defeats the purpose for "real" alerts.

Last year, where Fort McMurray was hit by forest fires, Canada did not
yet have emergency alerts enabled. Twitter and radio were the "official"
evacuation orders. (and there were mistakes, underestimating it,
mistakes in handling traffic etc).

A telling video in case you hadn't seen it:

Communications systems become extremely important in such emergency
events because of the time critical nature. For instance, in Fort
McMurray, one neighbourhood had only road out and it was already in teh
fire so people evacuating had to go through it. Yet, at intersection
with highway, the first responders were slowing traffic exiting from
Beacon hill to let highway traffic through, unaware of what was going on
on that one exit from beacon Hill neighbourhood (bad neighbourhood
design BTW). Had they stopped highway, they could have evacuated
neighbourhood quickly instead of forcing cars to be stuck in traffic
with fire all around them.

And as a sign of the times, many home cameras ran and kept sending
surveillance video to some service provider servers as the house burned
down until power cut or camera burned. (and some of the evacuated people
were able to get cable company to check iof theyr modem was still
"there" as a means to find out if their home had burned or not.

And while authorities refused to release real information on what areas
were damaged or not, Google released "before/after" satellite images so
people could check if their home was still there of not. (the
information age defeating politicians fears of releasing information).

on lighter note: this past summer while on an Amtrak train south of
Wilmington, interesting experience to see everyuone's phone beep at
roughly same time in train car due to flash flood alert, followed by
skies opening up and dumping an ocean on the train.

Yes, there are various implementation problems and mistakes. It sometimes feels like companies and agencies deliberately implement alerts badly. Emergency alerts should not sound like a 1950's AM radio with lots of static anymore.

And yes, due to lack of funding almost no emergency officials receive any formal training how to prepare public alerts or use emergency alert systems. So they make mistakes over-alerting or under-alerting or creating an understandable message.

Those things are out of scope of NANOG.

I've participated in the FCC rulemakings on emergency alerts and submitted suggestions things it could do to improve the implementation of emergency alerts (EAS, WEA, etc). I've also written some guidance for emergency managers about using public alerting systems

Back in scope for network operators and NANOG.

There are several things that could update the public alerting system for this century. I'd love to work with any teams that want to make things better. Heck, I got U-Verse to add an "exit" and "weather" button to its emergency alerts, so you can dismiss it instead of waiting for the entire message to play.

And the original question -- alerting people at home seems like a natural fit for smart speakers in the home and better intelligent assistants, i.e. don't wake me up at 3am for anything less than an extreme emergency impacting my immediate area.

Any of the smart speaker companies have any plans for this kind of feature?

I've looked at the publically available SDKs and APIs. They have most of the pieces.