Friday, June 8, 2012

New System Sends Emergency Alerts to Mobile Phones

Emergency management officials know that in weather emergencies, such as tornadoes, 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 cell phones.

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

“While these warnings may look like text messages, there won’t be any charges on your phone bill,” said Matt May, assistant director of operations for the Johnson County Division of Emergency Management. “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 message, we encourage you to turn to other sources for more detailed information about what to expect and what actions you should take,” said May.

Whether and how you’ll receive the alerts depends on your cell phone and service provider. 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 cell phone through a one-way broadcast. The system will not track or locate individual cell phones or phone numbers — it simply broadcasts to all phones within range. Unfortunately, in some cases, this may result in overwarning.

“For example, if we issue a warning for Johnson County, Kansas, it will go to all towers that serve that county. If you live in an adjacent area, such as western Jackson or Cass 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,” said Chuck Thacker, Grandview, Mo., fire chief and chair of the Metropolitan Emergency Managers Committee. “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/county emergency manager. To find out if your phone is capable of receiving the alerts, contact your wireless service provider. Visit www.preparemetrokc.org  for more information on preparing for emergencies

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