Cellphones can receive emergency alerts

Published 7:00 am Tuesday, February 6, 2018

By Skip Rigney

Did you know that your cell phone is probably capable of receiving emergency alerts issued by a number of government agencies, including the National Weather Service?

The Weather Emergency Alert system automatically pushes notifications of extreme weather warnings to cellphone users in the geographical area affected.

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These include warnings of tornadoes, flash floods, hurricanes and extreme winds.

WEA is part of the larger Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.

Various local, state and federal government agencies use IPAWS to notify cellphone users of local emergencies requiring evacuation or immediate action, AMBER Alerts regarding missing or kidnapped children, and Presidential Alerts during a national emergency.

The alerts are similar to a text message but have a unique sound and vibration.

This is the same system that was used last month by an employee of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency to send out an alert mistakenly warning that a ballistic missile was headed toward that state.

If you bought your cellphone over the past several years, it probably has the capability to receive these government emergency alerts, and the capability was probably turned on when you bought the phone. Most, but not all, cellular providers broadcast the alerts.

However, most phones also allow you to turn off the reception of the alerts in the phone’s “Settings” section.

One reason that some people turn off the reception of the alerts is that they believe that the government is tracking their location through the WEA capability.

This is not true.

The alerts are broadcast through cell towers for a particular area.

Your phone is simply the receiver for the cellphone alert, similar to the way a radio receiver works.

Currently, the broadcast system is not precise enough to pinpoint exactly the area being warned.

In order to err on the safe side, the system broadcasts across all counties affected, which means sometimes alerts are received in areas adjoining the actual threatened locale.

California’s senators criticized this lack of targeting accuracy in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission in October in the wake of deadly wildfires in their state.

Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris told the FCC that some emergency agencies decided not to use the system because an evacuation message would have reached “a large number of unaffected residents.

These emergency services are caught in a bind between notifying individuals in imminent danger and risking mass panic.”

The Associated Press reported that the alert system was used extensively in January by southern California emergency management officials when mudslides hit that region, but some counties delayed pushing the warnings to cellphones because of concerns that evacuation alerts would be received outside the actual threatened area.

In addition to the concerns raised by the Hawaii and California incidents, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommended changes to the alert system in two reports issued in November last year, “Emergency Alert and Warning Systems: Current Knowledge and Future Research Directions,” and “Integrating Social and Behavioral Sciences Within the Weather Enterprise.”

It’s a safe bet that changes are coming to the alert system. In the meantime, take a moment to check your phone’s settings to make sure the emergency alert capability is turned on. It could save your life.