The U.S. wireless industry is rolling out a new, nationwide text emergency alert system, known as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), to warn cell phone users of life threatening conditions — wherever they happen to be at the time, and whatever the threat may be.
The service is free, and there’s no need to sign up or download an app – it’s automatic on most mobile phones with text messaging capabilities.
Weather-related alerts will be issued by NOAA’s National Weather Service, but will not include notification of common events such as severe thunderstorms.
Instead, the service will focus on those weather emergencies most dangerous to life and property: tornadoes, flash floods, hurricanes, extreme wind, blizzards, ice storms, tsunamis, and dust storms.
(This will come as welcome news to anyone who has subscribed to a local alert system, only to opt-out after receiving countless irrelevant notifications. Alerts related to thunderstorms and other less threatening events will, however, continue to be broadcast over NOAA Weather Radio, media outlets and Internet-based services.)
How the WEA System Works
From standpoint of the user, it’s really quite simple. The system broadcasts an alert to cell towers within the affected area, which is then picked up by compatible cell phones that happen to be within range of the towers. Once the message is received, your phone will notify you with a distinctive ring and vibration.
The alert will look like a 90-character text message, but you won’t have to open it to read — it will automatically appear on your phone’s screen.
Alerts from Other WEA Partners
If you’re beginning to get the idea that the WEA system isn’t just for weather alerts, you’d be correct. It’s a means of communicating all sorts of emergency information from a variety of sources.
In addition to the National Weather Service, quite a few government entities are authorized to send alerts through the system, including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the President, and others.
If you find the whole concept a bit creepy or simply prefer not to receive WEA messages, you can opt out. But it probably makes sense to see how the system works before deciding.
To find out when the system will be available in your area, or whether your phone is WEA-capable, contact your wireless carrier or visit CTIA, the Wireless Association.