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9:39 am
Sat June 16, 2012

Mobile emergency alert capability coming to cell phones

Originally published on Fri June 15, 2012 4:09 pm

Emergency managers and National Weather Service forecasters have a new way to alert you to imminent danger. They've teamed up with all of the Northwest's major cellular providers on a system to broadcast emergency alerts to mobile devices. You don't need to sign up for anything; it's automatic.

In the Northwest, the National Weather Service is first to get the capability to issue warnings to all cell phones in the path of danger.

Seattle-based warning coordinator Ted Buehner says the new system doesn't track your phone. Rather it targets a text-based alert to a certain cell tower, which then broadcasts the message to all mobile devices within range.

"Here in the Pacific Northwest, the most likely times you're going to receive weather warnings via your cell phone or your mobile device are going to be for short-fused, immediate life threatening events like a tornado warning, tsunami warning or ice storm warning."

Other types of emergencies might generate a warning from the state emergency management division. Those might include a fast-moving wildfire, a chemical spill or a tsunami evacuation order.

Buehner says the wireless alerting system is a complement to, not a replacement for traditional warning channels such as radio and TV broadcasts.

The CTIA says many smart phones sold since the beginning of 2012 have the capability to receive Wireless Emergency Alerts. Older models probably don't.

For more information on handset capabilities by carrier, visit their FAQ page.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates the wireless emergency alert warning method will become more robust by 2014 when the majority of households will have upgraded their mobile phones.

Consumers can opt out of receiving mobile emergency alerts except for those issued by the President.

On the Web:

Mobile wireless alerts:

http://www.ctia.org/consumer_info/safety/index.cfm/AID/12082

FEMA explainer:

http://www.fema.gov/emergency/ipaws/cmas.shtm

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