Emergency alerts coming to cell phones

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By Brian Slattery

BOLIVIA—If a phone upgrade is on your Christmas wish list, that new device may come with a new emergency alert service.

Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) is the latest method put in place to notify the public of emergency warnings.

It will bring to your cell phone the Emergency Alert System—the next generation of the emergency broadcast system, which breaks into TV programs blaring a siren to draw your attention. It often endswith the announcement, “This is only a test.”

The project that led to this new service grew out of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  In 2006, the WARN Act was passed, leading to development of more immediate methods of sending emergency warnings by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The Emergency Alert System, the National Warning System, the NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards system and other established alert systems were connected into the new network known as the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).

Brunswick County Emergency Management Director Anthony Marzano informed representatives of local emergency services, county departments and elected officials of the project’s status at the Nov. 29 quarterly Local Emergency Planning Committee meeting.

Along with the national warning systems, local measures like Brunswick County’s reverse 911 telephone calling system will connect to IPAWS.

“One broadcast will hit TV, radio, the Internet, social media and mobile devices,” Marzano said.

In turn, emergency services has access to IPAWS to deliver local alerts.

“As a local entity, we will have access into the system. We can send out a wireless emergency alert. It will go through the National Weather Service and once they verify it, they will send it out over the emergency alert system,” Marzano said.

The National Weather Service is the first organization to promote the WEA capability on new generation smartphones.

Alerts will be sent to phones in cases of extreme weather warnings, local emergencies that require immediate attention or evacuation, AMBER alerts or presidential alerts during national emergencies.

The National Weather Service will send weather alert warnings in cases of tsunamis, tornadoes, flashing flooding, hurricanes and extreme winds and blizzard or ice storms.

Marzano said the alert system will look like a text on a cellular phone, but it is not a text, so there is no cost in terms of minutes or data use for the recipient.

The alert is a radio broadcast. The service does not track phones that receive a warning, he added.

“This is a bell-ringer. It alerts people that something is going on, but doesn’t provide detailed instructions,” Marzano said.

“Like if a siren goes off, (people typically) go look at the news to see what happened.”

Marzano said the first big use of the alert system was in October during Hurricane Sandy.

“From the feedback they received people got the information quickly and they took action,” Marzano said.

He said alerts are targeted to specific areas that could be affected by the emergency—people in a storm’s path would receive an alert instead of a general warning to everyone in the county.

If a person travels into an area that has received an alert, they will receive it too.

Marzano said he did not know what percentage of current cell phones have the emergency alert enabled, but county commissioner Marty Cooke said the IPAWS app is on his iPhone 5.

Marzano said with phone upgrades occurring every year, the WEA is expected to quickly proliferate.

“Within the next couple years most (people) will have it,” Marzano said.


Brian Slattery is a staff writer for The Brunswick Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or bslattery@brunswickbeacon.com.