Dust-Storm Cell-Phone Alert Freaks Out Phoenix-Area Residents; National Weather Service Says It's Fielding Complaints

About 9:30 p.m. Sunday, our iPhone -- and perhaps yours, too -- began buzzing like the bridge of the Enterprise just before a Romulan attack.

Dashing to the kitchen counter, where the phone was plugged in and recharging, we discovered that no, North Korea hasn't launched an EMP strike -- it was just the National Weather Service informing us that a dust storm was on the way.

The government cellphone alert surprised many Phoenix-area residents who received it, judging from our Facebook friends. A National Weather Service employee tells us this morning that the agency has been fielding complaints about it.

"I about shit my pants," says one of our co-workers who received the alert.

The information was accurate, for sure. About 30 minutes after the warning, strong winds could be heard blowing outside. We peeked outside and saw dust. But dust storms, (we're not fans of the word "haboob"), occur several times each summer in the Valley and cause little, if any, damage. Hardly something worth setting hundreds of thousands of cell phones abuzz.

Wireless emergency alerts began last year in the Phoenix area with just a couple of cell-phone companies and operating systems, explains Charlotte Dewey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Phoenix.

The system issued 18 dust-storm alerts last year, but because the alerts only go to people in the affected areas and not many cell-phone carriers used them, few phone users noticed. Sunday night was the first time the system was used this year, and it now works on more phones, Dewey says.

"It went out to a lot more people," Dewey says. "I think the iPhone didn't have it last year."

After Sunday night's alert, several people called the NWS to complain.

"We got a lot of people who did not like it," she says. "They want to turn it off. They did not ask for it."

Here's how to stop this annoyance from happening again on the iPhone (you're on your own for Samsung Galaxies and other phones we don't own):

* Go to Settings.

* Click on Notifications.

* Scroll all the way to the bottom and notice two toggles, one for Amber Alerts, and one for Emergency Alerts. Turn them off.

Problem is, as Dewey notes, "it's kind of an all or nothing."

In other words, with "emergency alerts" off, you won't get that notification of the tornado bearing down on your home.

But if your phone goes nuts every time the wind kicks up a few grains of dust, you'll just ignore it, anyway.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.