Public safety officials depend on an emergency alert system (EAS) to notify communities in the event of a disaster. This national public warning system requires all broadcast media to provide the President with a communication capability to address the American people within 10 minutes during a national emergency. EAS can also be used by state and local authorities to deliver important emergency information, such as weather information, imminent threats, AMBER alerts, and local incident information targeted to specific areas. Activated by the President and the responsibility of FEMA, EAS is available when all other means of alerting people are unavailable.
During an emergency, officials often need to communicate life-saving information quickly. In addition to the other emergency services available like NOAA weather radio, the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) also provides a wireless emergency alert system (WEA). With WEA, warnings can be sent to your mobile device when you may be in harm’s way. You do not need to download an app or subscribe to a service.
WEAs look like a text message. The message will show the type and time of the alert, any action you should take, and the agency issuing the alert, all within 90 characters. They are accompanied by a special tone and vibration, both repeated twice.
The National Weather Service sends out tsunami warnings, tornado and flash flood warnings, hurricane, typhoon, dust storm and extreme wind warnings. AMBER alerts are urgent bulletins regarding serious child-abduction cases issued by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in coordination with public safety officials.
If you have a WEA-capable phone and your wireless carrier participates (over 100 do) and you travel into a threat area after an alert is first sent, your WEA-capable device will receive the message. Wireless Emergency alert messages are provided free by wireless carriers and will not count toward texting limits. These messages will not be affected by network congestion and will not interrupt an ongoing conversation.
Just like emergency weather alerts you see on local TV, WEAs are broadcast from area cell towers to all mobile devices in the area. Each WEA-capable phone within range receives the message but no one is monitoring where you are.
You may receive very few messages or you may receive frequent messages during an emergency as conditions change. The number will depend on the threat to life or property in your area.
You can opt-out of receiving WEA messages for imminent threats and AMBER alerts, but not for Presidential messages. To opt out, adjust settings on your mobile device.
If you own a WEA-capable smartphone, you’re automatically enrolled to receive emergency alerts. Your provider does not create Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) however they deliver them to your WEA-capable smartphone on behalf of authorized state or local Emergency Management Agencies (EMAs) free of charge.
A WEA is a short, easy-to-read, text-like message accompanied by a unique attention signal and vibration that is helpful to people with hearing or vision-related disabilities.
Three types of Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs)
There are three different types of WEA alerts:
- Imminent threat alerts: Notify you of severe man-made or natural disasters that pose a threat to life or property
- AMBER alerts: Inform you about a missing child in your area
- Presidential alerts: Issued by the President on important events (Opt-out not allowed).
You may opt out of receiving Imminent threats and AMBER alerts, but you can’t opt out of Presidential Alerts.
Billie Nicholson, editor