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Sleepless Monday as quake prompts phones to squeal in wee hours

Complaints grow over 'invasive, annoying' emergency text messages

By Choi Jae-hee

Published : Jan. 9, 2023 - 17:19

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A screenshot of the emergency text alert for a 3.7 magnitude earthquake detected near Ganghwa County, Incheon at 1:28 a.m. on Monday. (Choi Jae-hee / The Korea Herald) A screenshot of the emergency text alert for a 3.7 magnitude earthquake detected near Ganghwa County, Incheon at 1:28 a.m. on Monday. (Choi Jae-hee / The Korea Herald)

In the wee hours of Monday, cellphones in homes and offices suddenly started making beeping sounds en masse in Greater Seoul. It was the emergency text alert for a 3.7 magnitude earthquake detected near Ganghwa County, Incheon.

The earthquake occurred at 1:28 a.m. in waters about 25 kilometers west of Ganghwa County. It was the first quake stronger than 3.0 magnitude to hit the nation this year. No damage has been reported, according to the Korea Meteorological Administration.

Many sleepers were awakened by mobile push notifications, not only startled by news of the earthquake but also by the sudden loud noise that broke the silence in the middle of the night.

"I thought it was a war or something," a Twitter user wrote. Another tweet reads “My heart was pounding so hard and I couldn’t go back to sleep.”

Online communities of mothers with young children have been bombarded with posts complaining about the sudden beeps that woke the whole family up.

One user shared the unpleasant experience of being startled to wake by three smartphones -- hers and her two children’s -- at her bedside. “I probably will end up staying up all night,” the mother wrote about 10 minutes after the state weather agency sent out the mobile quake alerts.

Some office workers who start early in the morning had puffy eyes from poor sleep. A 29-year-old hotelier surnamed Yoo, who begins her morning shift at 5 a.m., said, “I didn’t get much sleep. I was more surprised by the sound of the alert than by the earthquake itself.”

Monday's quake alerts were delivered in line with the Ministry of Interior and Safety’s emergency notification system that was launched in 2017, a year after the outbreak of a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, largely to enhance people's ability to respond to emergency situations.

Under the system, government agencies and district offices are advised to send out emergency text alerts to warn the public of natural disasters and provide guidance in emergency situations.

Despite good intentions, voices have been rising that the system is becoming something of a nuisance, used for events that cause little or no damage.

“The alert messages have now become like spam to me. I am tired of getting all the texts about someone going missing and COVID-19 cases,” said Lee Jeong-yeon, a teacher in her 40s.

An office worker in her 20s also surnamed Lee said: “It would be nice if text alerts for minor earthquakes or other public events that occurred late at night are sent out to mobile phones without ear-shattering volume. For some people, getting good sleep is as important as being notified of emergency events.”

Currently, text alerts for emergency situations including natural disasters or security issues are delivered at 40 decibels.

On the contrary, some still underline the alert system’s role for public safety.

“The system enables people to pay more attention to public safety issues. I think people need to bear some inconvenience for the common good,” said Yang, a housewife in her 40s living in Incheon.

If you are a smartphone user hoping to silence annoyingly loud emergency alerts, you may be able to open the “Settings” app and click “Safety and Emergency” on Galaxy smartphones or “Notifications” on iPhones, where there is a section called either “Disaster Alerts” or “Government Alerts” allowing you to disable emergency notifications.