New emergency alert system can deliver warnings to cellphones

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Emergency management officials know that in weather emergencies, such as tornados, warnings can save lives.

But they can't always rely on traditional warning methods -- television, radio and outdoor sirens -- to reach everyone.

Beginning in June, through a partnership with FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, officials will also be able to send warnings directly to cellphones, according to a news release from the Marshall Fire Department.

Using the new Wireless Emergency Alert system, the National Weather Service will send warnings for tornados, flash floods, blizzards and ice storms in the local area to cell towers that serve affected counties. The warnings will go automatically to many newer-model cellphones within range of the towers.

"While these warnings may look like text messages, there won't be any charges on your phone bill." said Tony Day, assistant Marshall fire chief. "This is just one more way to be alert for imminent dangers, whether you're at home or on the road."

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

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

Whether and how cell phone users receive the alerts depends on which phone service provider they use.

About 10 percent of the cell phones in use today are already capable of receiving the alerts; others, such as newer iPhones and Android models will soon receive software updates that add this feature.

The wireless industry estimates that by 2014 nearly all phones on the market will be WEA-capable.

The alerts are delivered directly from cell tower to cellphone through a one-way broadcast. The system will not track or locate individual cellphones or phone numbers -- it simply broadcasts to all phones within range. Unfortunately, in some cases, this may result in over warning.

"For example, if we issue a warning for Saline County, it will go to all towers that serve that county. If you live in an adjacent area, such as western Howard or Cooper counties, you may get the warning too." said Andy Bailey, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Pleasant Hill. "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 a unique ring tone and vibration. They will not interrupt any phone calls or downloads in progress. If you're on the phone when the warning is issued, you'll get the message after you end your call.

In addition to weather alerts, the system can broadcast AMBER alerts and presidential alerts for national emergencies. On newer phones, these alerts will be turned on by default. Procedures for opting out of the alerts will vary by carrier.

"Like any new system, we'll no doubt have some issues to work through," Chief Day said. "We hope people will be patient and not opt out of these potentially life-saving 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, contact your city and county emergency manager. To find out if your phone is capable of receiving the alerts, contact your wireless service provider.

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  • I really like this idea, we live in the country where there are no sirens. I am hoping that people will have a choice of which warnings we are alerted to, otherwise we may be bombarded with unwanted alerts, and become compatient to the text alerts.

    -- Posted by meagain on Wed, Jun 6, 2012, at 6:11 PM
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