Have you suddenly been awaked in the middle of the night by your cell phone blaring an unfamiliar, frantic screech of an alarm while vibrating and displaying an emergency text message about a missing child? Or maybe you've received an unexpected phone warning about dangerous weather, such as a flash flooding, the likes of which you've never seen before. If you have, and you have no idea of the source of this apparently new feature that you didn't remember downloading, you are not alone.
The system is called the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) program. It's the result of collaboration between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and private cellular providers through the trade organization CTIA -- The Wireless Association (originally the Cellular Telephone Industry Association) to push potentially lifesaving information to our cell phones.
It is overseen by the FCC and FEMA as a companion to the Emergency Alert System (EAS) (formerly the Emergency Broadcast System). Both systems fall under FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).
The service actually isn't new. It was previously referred to as the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) or the Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN). Participating cellular carriers were required to roll WEA out by April 7, 2012, and the National Weather Service joined in June 2012.
As a concept, it's been around even longer. The Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act of 2006 mandated creation of the Commercial Mobile Service Alert Advisory Committee by the FCC to make recommendations regarding what was necessary to send emergency alerts through mobile carriers, which laid the groundwork for the new alert system. The act also gave wireless providers the option to opt out with the provision that they inform their customers.
The alerts come from authorized government authorities, including the U.S. president, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the National Weather Service and other federal agencies, as well as state, local, territorial and tribal public safety officials. They are sent to a central system, IPAWS, which was created in compliance with Executive Order 13407, Public Alert and Warning System, issued on June 26, 2006. FEMA provides training and tools to help designated local officials create and send alerts.
The new system represents an effort to get important emergency warnings out to as many people as possible, not just those watching TV or listening to the radio, now that people in the U.S. have more than 300 million mobile devices and over 90 percent of adults carry cell phones [sources: Hu, CTIA, Pew Research Center].
What are the alerts like and who gets them?
When you get an alert, your phone will make a sound somewhat akin to the EAS warnings you hear on the radio or television from time to time, accompanied by a unique vibration. If you have your sound turned off, you should just get the vibration. The sound and vibration will be accompanied by an alert icon and a text message of up to 90 characters.
The text includes information such as alert category, time of the emergency and when it will expire, issuing agency, what the emergency is, who is affected and possibly a recommendation on how you should respond (such as seek shelter or evacuate). Amber alerts might include details about the abductor's vehicle including the license plate number. The message will repeat twice, and you may receive subsequent updates with new details. For more information, you can check for news of the emergency via other media such as TV, radio or the Web.
Participation by wireless carriers is voluntary, but more than 100 providers, including all the major ones, are already distributing the alerts. Participating carriers include AT&T, Bluegrass Cellular, Cellcom, Cricket, Sprint Nextel Corporation, T-Mobile USA, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless among many others, and more carriers will be adding the service soon. Even most prepaid providers offer it. In some cases, carriers may only be providing the alerts on portions of their networks or to select devices. And not all devices are capable of receiving the messages.
The devices that can currently receive the messages are mainly newer smartphones and souped-up cell phones sometimes called feature phones. New phones that have this ability bear a CTIA Wireless Emergency Alerts Capable logo. Your older device might be able to get them after a software upgrade, or it might be entirely incompatible. If you aren't sure, your carrier should be able to tell you whether your device can receive the alerts.
There is no need to subscribe to the service. If you have a WEA-enabled phone, you are automatically enrolled to receive the messages. You are not charged anything and they do not affect your text message limits or voice and data usage.
The alerts are geographically targeted and designed to go out to the county or counties where an emergency is occurring, but they can be sent to entire states, the entire nation, or possibly even smaller areas than counties under certain circumstances.
Cell phones have had the ability to receive Amber alerts since 2005 through an SMS text message based program called the Wireless Amber Alert program. It was an opt-in service that around 700,000 people signed up for, and which sent messages only for alerts in geographical areas picked by the users via traditional SMS [sources: Hu, CTIA, U.S. DoJ]. It was shut down in favor of the WEA system on December 31, 2012. WEA uses a different technology entirely.
Can it be used to spy on me?
The Wireless Emergency Alerts that pop up on our mobile screens resemble the Short Message System (SMS) text messages that many of us are used to sending and receiving, but they are actually sent via a different method, in part to avoid network congestion-related delays that can sometimes hinder text and voice messages. They also don't use individual phone numbers or GPS to get to people in the areas affected by an emergency.
WEAs are instead sent out via a special cell broadcast wireless carrier channel from cell towers in the affected area. It is a point-to-multipoint system that sends messages to every WEA-capable phone within range of the towers of participating carriers in the entire geographical area designated by the creators of the message.
When you are traveling, you should receive alerts appropriate to your current location, not your area of residence, as long as you are roaming on a participating provider's network and have the right phone. It is, however, possible for two people in the same location to be on different towers, leading to one getting an alert and one not getting it. You may also get them for emergencies in nearby areas that you are not currently in since they are broadcast using a radio-like technology from cell towers and their range might go beyond county boundaries.
Alerts should not interrupt your phone conversations or data transfers. The messages will be rebroadcast at regular intervals while an emergency is going on, and in that way may display once you end the call or session. Because of the rebroadcasting, you should also get them when you wander into an affected area after the initial warning is sent but while the danger is still present.
WEA-capable phones should display an alert the first time it is received and reject any duplicates. If the alert repeats more than the prescribed two times, it is most likely that new alerts were issued with additional or slightly different information.
Despite fears to the contrary, there is no citizen tracking going on via this system. The messages are broadcast as a one-way communication out to all capable mobile devices in range of the broadcasting cellular towers. No information is collected from the phones.
All messages are initially sent from authorized federal, state and local authorities to FEMA's IPAWS system, which verifies, formats and routes the messages to multiple warning systems, including the Emergency Alert System (EAS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio All Hazards (NWR) and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) program, among others. Messages are authenticated and converted to the Common Alerting Protocol standardized format through IPAWS OPEN, an open platform for emergency networks. Alerts that are IPAWS compliant will be sent to all public alert systems.
EAS messages are sent as usual via AM, FM and satellite radio, and broadcast, cable and satellite TV. NOAA's NWR broadcasts all types of emergency alerts, not just weather related ones, at various frequencies in the VHF public service band, and the broadcasts can be picked up with special receivers. IPAWS OPEN can also distribute messages to existing telephone or e-mail alert services, voice sirens, digital road signs and other local emergency message delivery services.
Should I -- can I -- opt out?
You can opt out of some, but not all, of the alerts. You should be able to turn off the Amber Alerts and Imminent Threat Alerts via your phone settings or by contacting your cellular carrier. However, it is not possible to opt out of Presidential Alerts due to provisions of the WARN Act.
To turn off alerts on iPhones running iOS 6, go to Settings>Notifications, and you will find on/off switches at the very bottom of the screen under Government Alerts. On typical Android OS phones, you go to Settings>Wireless & Networks> More>Cell Broadcasts, where you should find three Emergency Alert Settings that can be turned on or off: "Show extreme threats," "Show severe threats" and "Show Amber alerts." You can also set them to vibrate only. On BlackBerry 10, you can go to the Blackberry Hub and choose Settings>Emergency Alerts, and then toggle three possible settings: "Extreme Threat Alerts," "Severe Threat Alerts" and "Amber Alerts." You can also change the language the alerts are displayed in. On Windows phones, go to the Applications List>Messages>More>Settings>Emergency Alerts, where you will find a switch for Amber alerts and a list for Emergency Alerts that allows you to choose to receive "Presidential only," "Presidential and Extreme alerts" or "all alerts." You can find out how to opt out or back in on other compliant phones from your wireless provider.
As of fall 2013, no presidential alerts have gone out, but there have been lots of others. In late October 2012, WEAs went out to many people in harm's way moments before Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast of the U.S. On Feb. 7, 2013, a blizzard warning went out to a lot of areas in the northeastern U.S. Both prompted many to wonder what these alerts were, and why some people were getting them while others were not.
On July 17, 2013, a city-wide Amber alert startled a good many sleeping New Yorkers at 3:51 a.m. The alert was regarding a baby who was kidnapped by his mother from a foster care agency. The abductor apparently had a history of mental illness and violent outbursts; the alert led to the police locating the child.
The abduction of 16-year-old Hannah Anderson in San Diego prompted California's first statewide use of the WEA system, starting late at night on Aug. 4, 2013 and spanning multiple messages over several hours. It also expanded to other nearby states -- Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Idaho -- as new information came in. Idaho citizens out horseback riding unknowingly had an encounter with Hannah and her abductor at a campground. They saw the Amber alert on TV after getting home and contacted authorities, leading to her rescue.
The loud, late-night and early morning messages resulted in a lot of people saying they were going to opt out of the WEA system. Others expressed concerns that the program is a government intrusion, some fearing that it signaled access to their cell phones.
But it is a way to get vital emergency information to large numbers of potentially affected people when they are out and about, or not watching TV or listening to the radio -- the main avenues of the older warning systems.
As of July 2013, 656 children have reportedly been saved by Amber alerts since they began in 1996, and at least two kids have already been saved due directly to the new cell phone alerts [sources: NCM&EC, Fantz]. The first was an 8-month old in Minneapolis, Minn., where a teenager called just minutes after the alert went out -- the first sent through the new service in Minnesota --, leading police to the kidnapper's car and the baby. Another was an 8-year old in Cleveland, Ohio, where diners at a restaurant, all of whom remembered the alert from earlier, saw the suspect's vehicle outside. Two of them called 911 and followed the car for several miles and were able to tell police where the suspect was the whole time.
We tend to keep our cell phones nearby, and disaster can strike anywhere and anytime. We just have to weigh the potential annoyance of the alerts against the risk to ourselves and others around us if we don't get them.
Author's Note: Why am I getting Amber alerts on my phone?
I think it's cool that we have this capability, at least on our smartphones. The ability to save my life is a feature I would have added voluntarily. And I suppose if enough people get the messages, they can warn the people nearby who aren't carrying the latest devices. I've gotten nearly-local Amber alerts and flash flood warnings for my area so far. I've actually slept through tornado alarms before (until my significant other woke me up), but I use my cell phone as an alarm clock, so it has a much greater potential to wake me, especially with that screechy alert noise.
The alert definitely makes an annoying sound, but it's better that it isn't too similar to any of the other notification, ring or alarm noises we're all used to and might ignore. And I hear tell that you can change the sound on some devices.
Besides the fact that kids have already been rescued, imagine how many people could be saved if alerts went out to a good percentage of the populace the next time a hurricane or tsunami was about to hit. I, for one, won't be turning them off. Although I might be tempted briefly in the wee hours of the morning.
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