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Ryan Johnson, Published February 18 2013

Monday morning cellphone weather alert part of new national system

FARGO – Local residents baffled at the unfamiliar loud sounds coming from their cellphones Monday morning can rest assured it wasn’t their fault.

Just after 9 a.m., many in the region received an unprompted “emergency alert” telling them a blizzard warning was in effect. “Prepare. Avoid Travel. Check media,” the alert read.

Although the alert cited the National Weather Service, meteorologist Vince Godon said the agency wasn’t behind the messages. He said the issue came up a couple of weeks ago, when the Grand Forks office he works at fielded questions – and criticism – about a similar weather warning that woke people up at 3 a.m.

“I know there’s a lot of complaints about winter weather products setting them off,” he said, adding some callers suggested it may be better to reserve the warnings for more imminent weather threats such as tornadoes.

What happened? Regional Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Karen Smith explained the messages were sent through the nationwide Wireless Emergency Alert system, in place since last April, which aims to reach people with vital information as soon as possible.

It allows authorized government agencies to send free messages to wireless phone users in specific geographic areas as long as they’re a customer of a participating provider. Smith said it’s based on current location, not where a customer lives, so a Fargo resident on vacation outside of the region didn’t get Monday’s alert.

Other factors determine if people can receive these messages, she said. Verizon offers about 40 phones that are compatible with the system, but older phones or devices that lack the right configuration of hardware and software can’t get these warnings.

Most cellphone carriers participate in the system, which can issue three types of alerts: imminent danger alerts warning of bad weather and threat levels; Amber Alerts because of missing children; and presidential alerts during a national emergency.

Once an authorized agency decides an alert needs to be issued, the message is transmitted to participating cell towers within the target area, and any capable device within range gets the message.

“We don’t alter the content,” Smith said. “We’re just the conduit that gets the message out to the public.”

Cellphone users do have some choice in the matter. Smith said most compatible phones allow users to disable the imminent danger and Amber Alert warnings. Generally, those changes can be found in the phone’s settings menu.

But there’s no opting out of presidential alerts because of a provision in the Warning, Alert, and Response Network (WARN) Act passed by Congress in 2006 that paved the way for this system.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587


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