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Emergency alerts sent to cellphones

Alerts can now be sent to cellphones

Posted: August 14, 2012 - 11:09pm
Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) allow authorized agencies such as the National Weather Service to send alerts to capable cellphones capable in a specific area.Columbia County Emergency and Operations Division Director holds a phone displaying weather information.  Photo by Jim Blaylock
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) allow authorized agencies such as the National Weather Service to send alerts to capable cellphones capable in a specific area.Columbia County Emergency and Operations Division Director holds a phone displaying weather information.

Cellphone users can now receive emergency alerts – Wireless Emergency Alert messages – on their mobile phones.

The WEA program is a partnership between wireless carriers, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Through the system, authorized agencies can send emergency messages to cellphone users.

“I’m not sure if there’s a perfect way to reach everyone, but most people have a wireless device,” said Tom Martin, the Public Affairs manager for the CTIA, the international association for the wireless telecommunications industry.

Messages can be Amber Alerts, weather-related or presidential alerts. There’s no registration needed, but users can opt out of receiving all messages except presidential alerts, Martin said.

Agencies began sending WEAs through the wireless carriers to WEA-capable cellphones in April.

The messages are broadcast to cell towers in the geographic area where the alerts apply, which then relay the messages to cellphones within reach of their signals.

“It’s location-based,” Martin said. “It is not something where you have to register your device in a certain location. If an alert goes out to a county or more specifically, a part of a county, (the message goes out to) whichever cellphones are connected to the tower there.”

People will receive messages related to where they are, not where they are from or have their cell phones billed to. If a Georgia man is in Southern California when an earthquake strikes, he likely will receive WEAs about the quake.

“It’s good to have two or three ways to notify (the public about emergencies),” Columbia County Emergency and Operations Division Director Pam Tucker said.

Traditional methods such as television, radio and telephone notifications only reach about 65 percent of the population, Tucker said.

“That improved with technology because then you could do e-mail alerts and things and get information sent around fast,” Tucker said. “It’s even better with this and then the NOAA (weather) alert radios.”

Many wireless carriers including Verizon, Spring and T-Mobile, voluntarily participate in the program. Not all cellphones, particularly older models, are capable of receiving alerts.

A list of participating wireless carriers and cell phone models able to receive the alerts can be found in the CTIA Web site, www.ctia.org.

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