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John Myers, Forum Communications Co., Published June 17 2012

Weather alerts coming to a cellphone near you

DULUTH, Minn. – Starting this week a new system of weather emergency alerts will be rolled out across the country aimed at reaching people, no matter where they are, through their most-used communication device: the cellphone.

Even if you are nowhere near a computer, TV, radio or warning siren, you can now get a text-like message on your cellphone – called Wireless Emergency Alerts – warning of dangerous weather in your specific area.

“We’re not sure which day, but we know it’s going to go live (this) week sometime,” said Carol Christenson, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Duluth. “We’ve actually been sending them out for some time, but the last gate hasn’t been opened yet for people to receive them. That’s going to happen now.”

The alerts are free and will be automatically sent out from cellphone towers to anyone with a phone capable of receiving the messages. There’s no need to sign up for anything.

Several newer model phones, about 10 percent of those now in use, already are set up to receive the messages. Some older models, including iPhones and Androids, will get free updates to add the capability.

The National Weather Service will send the warnings for the most dangerous weather emergencies – namely tornadoes, flash floods, hurricanes, high wind, blizzards, ice storms, tsunamis and dust storms.

“It’s an opportunity to reach many more people, to get the message out, and that’s our goal,” Christenson said. “Not everyone has this type of cellphone yet, and not all of our areas are covered by cell service. But we can still reach way more people this way who maybe aren’t the type to buy a weather radio or sit home and listen for weather warnings.”

Severe thunderstorm warnings will not be part of the initial rollout of broadcast messages because they are so frequent. Those warnings will, however, continue to be broadcast to weather radios, media outlets and Internet-based services.

Other agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security and even local law enforcement agencies, also will tap into the system to send alerts for chemical spills or even terrorist attacks. The president also can order a message sent.

Here’s how the new system works: If you are at home or traveling with your cellphone through an area where a weather warning has been issued, your phone will pick up alerts broadcast by the closest cell towers. Those towers will broadcast the message much like a radio station, and cellphones within range will immediately pick up the signal. When your phone receives a message, it will alert you with a unique ring tone and vibration.

The message will look like a text, but it’s not a traditional text message most people are used to. This text message will automatically pop up on your cellphone’s screen; you won’t have to open it up to read it. The alerts will essentially be sent over a separate broadcast system not subject to over-crowding or other problems on the cellphone network, so the messages should always get through. (If you are talking on the phone, the message will appear when you hang up.)

No matter where you live or your home area code, the new service will send alerts appropriate to your real-time geographic location. For example, if you are from Duluth but traveling near the Twin Cities, the service will send you alerts for that part of the Twin Cities, not from back home. Same if you are in Miami or LA.

In most cases, the messages will be a “heads up” to seek further information about the threat. In the case of an extreme and imminent danger – such as a large tornado in the area – the message will advise you to seek shelter immediately.

Cell service customers can opt out of weather alerts, but officials are hoping most won’t. The system will be tested on the third Thursday of each month.

Of course, your phone can only warn you of danger; it can’t make you take action.

The Wireless Emergency Alerts initiative was ordered by federal legislation in 2006 and is a partnership among the wireless industry, the Federal Communications Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. All of the nation’s major cell service providers are cooperating.

To find out what phones are Wireless Emergency Alert compatible, contact your cell service provider. For more information go to www.ctia.org and click on Wireless Emergency Alerts.


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John Myers writes for The Duluth News Tribune