Get weather alerts on cellphone

A new national program was launched in June that directly alerts some cellphone users of dangerous weather. The Wireless Emergency Alert, or WEA, system allows the National Weather Service to broadcast alerts for only the most severe weather, like tornadoes, through cell towers and participating wireless carriers directly to phones in designated areas in any part of the country, usually a specific county.

The alert will still be sent to the phone if the user enters the area after an alert is issued, and will be resent until the alert expires, although each individual device will display the message just once. This does not mean the system will track a person’s location or personal data. It uses one-way technology, assuring authorities cannot collect subscriber-related data, like details on who is in the emergency area, who received the alert or who may have opted out.

Wireless carriers are selling the mobile devices with the Commercial Mobile Alert System, or CMAS, and WEA capability included. Cellphone users can check with their wireless carriers to see if they are capable of receiving WEA alerts. Although Verizon, U.S. Cellular and AT&T say they are ready to carry WEA alerts in Iowa, others may be ready as well, and some phones may be upgradeable. Information on providers is at

Key Points

Cellphone emergency alert system was recently introduced in selected areas.

New system sends weather and other emergency alerts directly to cellphones.

It broadcasts alerts for severe weather (like tornadoes) through cell towers.

Part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s mobile alert system, WEA will also issue Presidential, AMBER and Imminent Threat alerts using cell broadcast technology that won’t get backlogged during times of emergency when services are congested. “This is the first step in implementing a new emergency notification system that has great promise for Iowans,” says Mark Schouten, Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division administrator. “HSEMD is applying for permission to issue WEAs, so in the future we’ll be able to use these alerts to get critical information directly to citizens through their cellphones.”

Imminent Threat alerts may be issued by state and local officials who complete a four-step application process and have a memorandum of agreement with FEMA governing system security. Alerts must meet criteria established in FCC rules to ensure only the most urgent messages are sent over CMAS. More information on this is available from HSEMD.

Works like a text message

WEA alerts will look similar to text messages, but will automatically show the type and time of alert when showing up on a cellphone screen. They will not have to be opened up like a text message and will have a unique ring and vibrate to let the user know it is an alert, which could be particularly helpful for someone with seeing or hearing disabilities.

Messages will be limited to 90 characters in length and will contain only basic information, like type of event, time until the alert expires and recommended action. For specific information, users should check other sources like a radio, television or NOAA Weather Radio.

Although users will not be charged for receiving these messages, they may opt out of certain alerts. Like all new services, it will take time to ensure all cellular customers can receive WEA alerts, but the industry estimates by 2014 almost all cellphones available will be capable of receiving them. “These alerts are another way citizens can ensure the safety of their families,” Schouten says.

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This article published in the July, 2012 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.