The Emergency Alert System, long known for its blaring tests on radio and television, will begin sending warnings via cell phone next week.
If you’ve purchased a new cell phone within the past six months, you’re likely to start seeing messages for extreme weather, “Amber alerts,” and if it comes down to it, national emergencies. The technology comes from a collaboration between the Federal Emergency Management Agency, cell phone companies and the National Weather Service. Todd Shea works at the National Weather Service Station in La Crosse: “The messages are supposed to have a unique ringtone and vibration, too, that kind of makes them a little different than a standard text message that is coming in.”
He says the service is not GPS based and does not track your phone. Instead, a warning is sent to all cell towers in an area experiencing an emergency, which is relayed to your phone. Shea says the messages will be 90 characters or less with very basic information, “A typical tornado warning alert would say something like ‘tornado warning in your area until 2 p.m.,’ for example and then it will say ‘take shelter now. NWS.’”
The service is free and will not interfere with phones. Tom Hurley is the Emergency Management Coordinator for Eau Claire County. He says this technology will help reach people who don’t rely on traditional media: “The traveler down I-94 that’s not from this area, has their iPod plugged in and isn’t listening to broadcast media, for them to be made aware that they are driving into significant weather is, in my mind, a step ahead.”
Hurley says those with older phones will have to rely on more traditional means to get emergency alerts but FEMA expects 80 percent of all phones to have the capability in three to four years.
A list of participating cellular providers and capable phones can be found at readywisconsin.wi.gov.