Extreme-weather text alerts set to begin
By Doyle Rice
May 14, 2012
Wireless carriers and the federal government are launching a system to
automatically warn people of dangerous weather and other emergencies
via a special type of text messaging to cellphones.
The Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) service, which begins this month, is
free, and consumers won’t have to sign up. Warnings will be
location-based: If you’re traveling, you’ll get an alert for whatever
emergency is happening where you are.
“Wireless carriers representing more than 97% of subscribers
voluntarily agreed to develop and offer free, geographically targeted
wireless emergency alerts,” said Amy Storey, spokeswoman for the CTIA—
The Wireless Association. AT&T, Cellcom, Cricket,
Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless are
Alerts will be issued for such life-threatening events as tornadoes,
flash floods, hurricanes, typhoons, tsunamis, dust storms, extreme
winds, blizzards and ice storms.
“These text alerts will be very brief, under 90 characters,” said
National Weather Service spokeswoman Susan Buchanan, “and are intended
to prompt people to immediately seek additional information through the
wide range of weather alert communications available to them, such as
the Internet, television, radio or NOAA Weather Radio.”
Private forecasting companies have offered warnings to subscribers
before, but this is the first national service by the federal
government and the wireless industry.
Buchanan said alerts about very dangerous situations such as tornadoes
will give advice such as “seek shelter immediately.”
The weather alerts will be used specifically for weather “warnings,”
not the less-severe weather “watches.”
According to the weather service, a watch means a specific type of bad
weather is possible during the next few hours, while a warning means
that type of weather has been observed, or is expected soon.
In addition to “imminent threat” warnings for severe weather and
earthquakes, WEA can also issue AMBER Alerts for missing children and
Presidential Alerts for national emergencies. People can opt out of
AMBER and Weather Alerts but not Presidential Alerts.
An alert will look like a text, but the system uses a different
technology that isn’t subject to congestion or wireless network delays,
the CTIA said.
WEAs are a point-to-multipoint system, Storey says, which means alert
messages will be sent to those within a targeted area, unlike text
messages, which are not location aware.
The alerts don’t have anything to do with where the phone was
registered or what area code the phone has; the closest cell phone
tower will broadcast the warnings to all cell phones in that area.
For example, if a person with a WEA-capable device from Washington,
D.C., happened to be in Oklahoma City when a tornado warning was issued
for Oklahoma City, they would receive an alert on their device.
The bulk of the warnings, Storey predicts, will be weather related.
“Given that there are more mobile devices than Americans in the U.S.,
it makes sense to warn wireless consumers about threats on their mobile
devices, since they can receive them anytime and anywhere,” Storey
“This is another great way of receiving warnings immediately, just like
weather radio and other sources,” weather service spokesman Chris
Vaccaro says people should not rely only on mobile devices for weather
warnings since they can lose power. He urges using a National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration weather radio, which has longer-lasting
The WEA system is a collaboration by the wireless industry, the Federal
Communications Commission, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the
Department of Homeland Security, the National Weather Service and other