A new public safety system for mobile device consumers allows government officials to issue emergency alerts to geographically-targeted areas in the event of imminent threats to safety.
The Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, managed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in partnership with the wireless industry, became operational in April 2012.
Similar to a text message, but relying on slightly different technology to ensure delivery reliability, the WEA messages show the type and time of the alert, action to be taken by the recipient, and the agency which issued the alert.
According to FEMA, consumers whose carriers provide the service will receive the following types of alerts, limited to 90-characters each:
- Imminent Threat Alerts – Extreme weather, and other threatening emergencies in specific geographic areas
- AMBER Alerts – Alerts that meet the U.S. Department of Justice’s criteria to help law enforcement search for and locate an abducted child
- Presidential Alerts during a national emergency
The free messages include a special tone and vibration, both repeated twice.
While mobile carriers may provide consumers with the means to disable most alerts, federal law prohibits turning off Presidential Alerts.
“Any licensee electing to participate in the transmission of National Alert System alerts may offer subscribers the capability of preventing the subscriber’s device from receiving alerts broadcast by the system other than an alert issued by the President,” according to the”Warning, Alert and Response Network Act” of 2006.
The system works when “pre-authorized” national, state or local government officials send an emergency alert to FEMA, which then pushes the messages out to participating wireless carriers.
“Participating wireless carriers push the alerts from cell towers to mobile devices in the affected area,” according to a guide published by the FCC. “The alerts appear like text messages on mobile devices.”
Verizon recently notified its customers that they may receive a test alert as part of a monthly test required by participating carriers.
“Participating carriers are required to support monthly test alerts of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) system,” Verizon said in FAQ page on the company’s website. “Only specific persons within the carrier’s network employees, or within specific emergency response agencies should receive these alerts.
“If you are receiving test alerts, we thank you for your patience. The manufacturer of your device will soon release a silent, over the air fix to prevent further receipt of test alerts.”
A wireless trade group, CTIA, estimates that participating providers represent about 97 percent of subscribers nationwide.
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