Wireless Emergency Alerts: Is Your Mobile Phone Enabled for Life-Saving Warnings?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — A tornado warning is issued for your county and suddenly everyone's cell phone in the office is buzzing, vibrating and issuing a text update – to everyone except you. Have they all subscribed to a news alert service that you don't know about? No. Is their smart phone simply smarter than yours? Possibly.

That lifeline to emergency information is a cooperative effort between wireless service providers, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It's called the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system and is similar in function to the Emergency Alert System that broadcasters use.

Designed to broadcast text-like warnings to targeted areas affected by a dangerous situation, WEA alerts became officially available in August 2012. They are used to transmit Amber Alerts for abducted children; imminent threat alerts for man-made or natural disasters such as tornados, hurricanes or earthquakes; and Presidential alerts regarding national emergencies.

Mobile users aren't charged for the text messages, because they aren't really text messages. A separate technology is used to transmit the alerts so that they are delivered immediately and not subject to network delays due to congestion on wireless networks. And WEA uses a targeted "point-to-multipoint" technology that sends a message to a specific geographic zone. The alerts use a unique audible signal and vibration designed to get your attention – the volume can't be adjusted.

If enabled, your phone will receive alerts based on your current location, not your home service area. So, if you live in Boston but are visiting New York and there is a local emergency, you would receive an alert if your phone is using a cell tower in the New York alert zone. The FCC says the system does not track the location of mobile device users.

So why didn't your cell phone start buzzing and beeping when everyone else's did? Here are some possible reasons, according to the FCC and CTIA – The Wireless Association:

  • You device is not WEA capable. Over 100 carriers, including all of the best-known, such as AT&T, Sprint and Verizon, participate in the program and sell mobile devices that are enabled, including pre-paid cell phones. If the box your phone was packaged in says "Wireless Emergency Alerts Capable," you may need to simply install a software upgrade to start receiving the alerts. To find out if your phone is WEA capable, check with your service provider.
  • Alerts may be disabled on your phone. For example, on an iPhone, go to the "Settings" menu, then "Notification Center" and "Government Alerts" to be sure the alerts are enabled.
  • The FCC says WEA participation is "widespread but voluntary." Wireless service providers may offer the alerts in all or parts of their coverage areas, and on specific devices. You may also miss alerts if you are roaming in a service area where WEA is not supported.
  • Even if you use the same provider and mobile device as someone else in your location, it is possible that your phone is using a different cell tower than your companion's device. If you are at the edge of an alert zone, the tower providing your service may be outside of the targeted warning area.
  • Users can opt out of the Amber Alerts, as well as the imminent threat alerts, but not from Presidential alerts.

    --Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet

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