July 2, 2012

New weather alert system for cellphones debuts

FEMA has rolled out a national weather alert system for mobile phones around the country.

FEMA has rolled out a national weather alert system for mobile phones around the country.

The good news is most folks won’t have to download an app or otherwise program their phones. If your phone has the capability of receiving the messages, you’ll automatically start getting the Wireless Emergency Alerts.

The bad news is not every cellphone can receive the alerts, and not every service provider is offering it nationwide yet.

The system, which went nationwide Thursday, will send text messages of no more than 90 characters alerting residents of dangerous weather in their locations — warnings for tornadoes, flash floods, hurricanes or blizzards, for instance.

All alert-capable phones in a geographic area included in a warning will receive the texts, whether the phone user lives in the location or just happens to be visiting.

“I think that’s going to be a huge asset when folks are traveling,” said Chance Hayes, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Wichita.

One of the people killed by the massive tornado that all but wiped Greensburg from the map in 2007 was a truck driver who unwittingly drove into the tornado’s path, Hayes said. The new alert system will be especially useful for travelers who may not be familiar with the names of counties or cities they’re driving through when dangerous weather threatens.

“If they’re listening to the radio, they may not be familiar with the geography and not truly understand the threat they’re in,” Hayes said.

Availability varies widely from carrier to carrier at this point.

T-Mobile has 16 phones that are alert-capable, according to the company’s website. Verizon has 13, including six versions of the Droid. Sprint has 12 phones capable of receiving the alerts, though a company website indicates at least some will have to be programmed to receive the alerts.

AT&T has only three alert-ready phones.

While most providers are making the service available throughout their coverage areas, AT&T is currently offering it in just three cities: Portland, Ore.; Washington, D.C., and New York.

AT&T officials say more phones and more coverage area will be added as time passes.

Hayes said residents should go to their service provider’s website to see whether their phone can receive the alerts. Or they may opt to call a local office for their provider and ask.

Along with extreme weather warnings, the system will be used for local emergencies requiring evacuation or immediate action — such as a chemical spill or wildfire — and Amber Alerts or Presidential Alerts during a national emergency.

Phone users can opt out of receiving the weather and Amber Alerts, Hayes said, but not Presidential Alerts.

Warnings won’t be sent to the same phones repeatedly, according to information provided by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, though warnings with new information on the same storm will be transmitted.

Alerts will be sent every five minutes until a warning has expired, so people who travel into a threatened area after a warning has been issued will be alerted to the danger.

While all new cellphones will come with the capability of receiving the alerts, FEMA officials say it may be possible for some customers to simply upgrade the software in their current phones rather than go out and buy a new one.

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