• Tornado and extreme wind warnings
• Flash flood warnings
• Dust storms
• Blizzards and ice storms
• Tsunami warnings
• Emergency evacuations
• Amber Alerts for child abductions
• National emergencies declared by the president.
To see if your cellphone can receive an alert, visit http://www.ctia.org/wea or contact your wireless carrier.
* * *
Next time the weather turns bad and your cellphone sounds a vibrating alarm, pay attention — it might be a tornado warning.
Starting June 18, the nation's emergency alert system will begin sending alerts via cellphone about life-threatening weather, national emergencies and child abductions.
The new program is several years in the making and part of a larger effort to modernize the emergency warning system.
It is the first major advance in alerting the public since at least the 1980s, said Wade Witmer, deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency division coordinating the program.
The messages sent by the alert will be limited to 90 characters and will describe the emergency and suggest action.
“It's important to understand that while this is a new capability, it is just another tool,” Witmer said. “People will still need other ways to obtain information.”
About 90 percent of households have a cellphone, so this self-activating system has the potential to greatly increase the number of people reached by the warnings.
And while the alerts work only on newer-model phones, the high turnover rate for cellphones leads people like Witmer to believe that almost all cellphone users will be getting the alerts in the next couple of years.
Among the best things about this system, said Witmer and others, is that it's automatic and free. Cellphone users don't have to sign up, download or pay for anything.
And because it operates via cell tower and not by a text-messaging system, it will instantly reach all phones within a tower's reception area — bottlenecks will not occur because of congested airwaves.
Another advantage is that the phone will sound the alarm and vibrate, as long as it's on, even if it's been turned to mute. It will work on any type of newer cellphone, including those that aren't smartphones.
Depending on reception, the cellphone will automatically account for a change in the user's location. If the user is driving and enters a county with an active weather warning, the phone will sound the alarm, even if the warning was issued before the driver crossed the county line.
Of the 600 cellphone carriers in the nation, about 100 — including all major carriers — have told the federal government they will broadcast the alert, Witmer said.
Users can opt out of the Amber Alerts and weather messages, but not national emergencies.
The alerts are being generated through a partnership of FEMA, the Federal Communications Commission, the National Weather Service and cellphone carriers.
The system has limitations, including:
» Because it's a new system, there may be bugs that have to be worked out. Plans are in place to continue to improve it.
» Transmission of the alert depends on the quality of the cell tower signal. People in an area with poor reception may not get the message.
» The phone must be turned on to receive the alert.
» Alerts are done by county, even though National Weather Service warnings are issued for narrower areas. Some people will receive warnings about threats that aren't imminent for them.
» Participation is voluntary by cellphone carriers, and some smaller ones are not participating.
» The alert won't interrupt phone calls, so users won't know about a threat if they are on the phone.
Mike Moritz, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Hastings, said the cellphone alerts should be seen as something that complement existing warnings, not as a replacement.
“(It) is only intended to act as a bell ringer, so people should continue to rely on traditional sources for emergency information,” he said.
Contact the writer: