October 22, 2014

New emergency alert system making its way to cell phones

Courtesy Photo
This is what the emergency alert system will look like on some current cell phones.
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GAYLORD — A new emergency alert system will allow emergency alerts to be sent directly to people’s cell phones beginning this month.

According to a press release from the National Weather Service of Gaylord, the program is in partnership with FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.

Using the new Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, the NWS will send warnings for tornados, flash floods, blizzards and ice storms in the local area to cell towers that serve affected counties, the release says. The warnings will automatically be sent to many newer-model cell phones within range of the towers.

NWS Warning Coordination Meteorologist Jim Keysor said the warnings will look like text messages, but there will be no charges on a person’s phone bill.

“This is just one more way to be alert for imminent dangers, whether you’re at home or on the road,” Keysor said.

The release states that the short messages will provide basic information, such as the type of warning, affected areas and duration.

“When you get this warning message, we encourage you to turn to other sources for more detailed information about what to expect and what actions you should take,” Keysor said.

Only around 10 percent of cell phones in use today are capable of receiving the alerts at this time. However, models such as newer iPhones and Android phones will receive future updates to support the feature. It is estimated that most cell phones on the market will be WEA-capable by 2014.

The alerts will be broadcast one-way, and the system does not track or locate cell phones or cell numbers, the press release states. It will broadcast to all phones within range.

However, that may cause some people to be overwarned.

“For example, if we issue a warning for your county, it will go to all towers that serve that county,” Keysor said. “Towers in urban areas generally serve a radius of two to five miles, and in rural areas up to 10 miles, so the warning message may reach a little beyond the warning boundaries.”

The alerts will include unique ringtones and vibration, and will not interrupt any phone calls or downloads in progress. If a person is on the phone when an alert is issued, it will be received after the call is finished.

The system will also be able to broadcast Amber Alerts and presidential alerts for national emergencies. Alerts will be turned on by default on newer phones. Procedures for opting out of the alerts will vary by carrier.

According to the CTIA Wireless Association, people will be able to opt out of all alerts except for presidential alerts. No consumer can opt out of presidential alerts per the WARN Act of 1996.

“Like any new system, we’ll no doubt have some issues to work through,” Keysor said. “We hope people will be patient and not opt out of these potentially lifesaving messages. The system will get better with time, but it’s too important to wait any longer.”

To learn more about the Wireless Emergency Alert system, visit the NWS Gaylord website at www.weather.gov/Gaylord or contact your local emergency manager. To find out if your phone is capable of receiving the alerts, contact your wireless service provider.

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