Carriers Roll Out Mobile Emergency Alerts

Wireless carriers are deploying an emergency alert system along with FEMA to notify the public about weather conditions, AMBER alerts and presidential messages.

Look out for emergency messages from the government on your smartphone. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and wireless carriers are rolling out emergency alerts, called the Wireless Emergency Alert, or WEA, system, via text-like messages on mobile phones to allow federal, state and local governments to issue critical alerts.

The free alerts could come from the president, National Weather Service or local emergency operations, and they may include AMBER alerts on missing children. AMBER alerts must meet the U.S. Justice Department's requirements on helping law enforcement find abducted children, according to the CTIA-The Wireless Association, which is working with the Federal Communications Commission and FEMA on setting up the alerts.

WEA is also referred to as Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), which the FCC initiated in 2006 under the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act. The FCC set April 2012 as the deadline for carriers to begin sending the alerts.

A 28-month period for wireless carriers to set up implementation of the system began on Dec. 7, 2009, according to FEMA. Carriers participating include AT&T, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless.

Customers can opt out of all messages, except for presidential alerts, which may contain information on national security, Crystal Davis, crisis communications manager for Sprint, told eWEEK.

Wireless users may receive warnings on weather conditions, such as tornadoes, flash floods or blizzards.

The WEA service is the first national system of alerts, USA Today reported.

Although the 90-character notes appear like text messages, they're not typical Short Message Service (SMS) communications, according to CTIA. The technology used for these alerts prevents them from getting hung up by congestion on wireless networks. Wireless users won't need to open the alerts as they would with SMS texts.

Public safety agencies issue the alerts, and FEMA transmits them to the wireless carriers. Carriers then broadcast them to subscribers that have WEA-capable phones, the CTIA reported. Point-to-multipoint messages are sent to a targeted area, according to CTIA.

Public safety and law enforcement will use FEMA's IPAWS Open Platform for Emergency Networks (IPAWS-OPEN) to send the alerts. IPAWS-OPEN consists of Web services that allow the messages to be routed among third-party applications, systems, networks and devices.

The FCC will ensure that only the most urgent messages are sent. The messages will be similar to those sent by television and radio.

Not all phones are capable of receiving WEAs, according to FEMA. The agency anticipates that most handsets will be WEA-capable by 2014. Phones that support WEA will automatically receive the messages, CTIA reported.

WEAs will feature a unique ringtone and vibration, according to FEMA. The distinctive vibration could help people with hearing or vision-related disabilities, the agency reported.

The alerts will include indicators such as alert category, event type, response, severity and urgency, according to Verizon Wireless.

On Verizon, phones supporting the alerts include Motorola Droid models; LG phones such as the Cosmos, Revere and Enlighten; and the rugged, push-to-talk Samsung Convoy 2.

Users who are on voice or data sessions won't receive the alerts, but the alerts may be rebroadcast at specific intervals, according to Verizon.

By the first quarter of 2012, AT&T had planned to launch the WEA alerts in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore. Phones on its network supporting WEA include the Samsung Galaxy S II, Samsung Captivate Glide and Motorola Atrix 2.

Sprint participated in a test of the WEA system in New York City in late 2012. The carrier has 12 devices that support WEA, and most of them are running the Google Android OS, said Davis.

The Apple iPhone doesn't yet support WEA on Sprint, she noted.

As of May 17, FEMA had approved 24 public safety agencies to issue alerts, according to the CTIA.