New Wireless Emergency Alerts System Debuts

This year, America’s wireless industry is rolling out a new nationwide text emergency alert system, called Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), which will warn the public when weather threatens.

The text alert service, which debuted on June 28, is free and automatic — there’s no need to sign up or download an app. As long as users’ cell phones are WEA-capable, they will receive wireless alerts for the most dangerous types of weather from NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) no matter where they are, just as soon as the new service is available in their area.

NOAA’s NWS will broadcast warnings for weather emergencies that are most dangerous to life and property: tornadoes, flash floods, hurricanes, extreme wind, blizzards and ice storms, tsunamis, and dust storms. (Severe thunderstorm warnings will not be part of the initial rollout of broadcast messages because they are so frequent; however, these will continue to be broadcast by NOAA Weather Radio, media outlets and Internet-based services.)

The alerts could also be issued for local emergencies requiring evacuation or immediate action, AMBER Alerts and Presidential Alerts during a national emergency.

If users are at home or traveling with their cell phones through an area where a weather warning has been issued, their phone will pick up alerts broadcast by nearby cell towers. Those towers will broadcast the message much like an AM/FM radio station, and cell phones within range will immediately pick up the signal — provided they are enabled to receive text alerts. When the phone receives a message, it will alert the user with a unique ring tone and vibration.

The message will look like a text, but it’s not a traditional text message most people are used to. This text message will automatically pop up on the cell phone’s screen; the user won’t have to open it up to read it. It will not be more than 90 characters and message frequency depends on the number of imminent threats to life or property in the alert area.

The alert will not interrupt phone calls and will not be affected by network congestion. Users can opt-out of receiving  WEA messages for imminent threats and AMBER alerts, but not for Presidential messages.

Regardless of where users are, this service will send alerts appropriate to their real-time geographic location. For example, if a person with a WEA-capable phone from New Jersey happens to be in Southern California during and after an earthquake, he or she will receive an “Imminent Threat Alert” on their device.

These messages will usually be a “heads up” to prompt the public to seek further information about the threat. In the case of an extreme and imminent danger – such as a large tornado in the area – the message will advise users to seek shelter immediately.

WEAs are emergency messages sent by authorized government alerting authorities through mobile carriers. Government partners include local and state public safety agencies, FEMA, the FCC, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Weather Service. Currently, universities or colleges are not be able to issue these alerts.

The NWS began pushing alert messages to the WEA service on June 28, 2012, but many mobile devices, especially older ones, are not WEA-capable. New mobile devices will probably be able to receive the messages. To determine if a mobile device is WEA-capable, click here.

Read the press release.

Read frequently asked questions.

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