There are threats and dangers in the world that no one can truly prepare for. The wireless industry is doing its part to ensure that crisis-related communications are sent out as timely and effectively as possible.
The attention-grabbing vibrations and unique sound that goes off on a cell phone alerts its owner that there is an important message regarding his or her personal safety or the safety of someone else. These Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) are public safety notifications specific to one’s location, and can indicate a nearby Amber Alert, imminent threats to safety or a presidential message.
The good news – there’s no fee for these alerts, you don’t need to sign up for them and no one is tracking your location through this technology. At least 100 carriers participate, including the top four, but some only offer it on certain devices.
Who’s in charge of what …
The wireless industry works together with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) in order to make this system possible. While you can choose to block some of them, the only WEA that you can’t block is an emergency message issued by the president.
The technology used to deliver these messages prevents overcrowding and uses a different wireless network than the one used for usual text messages. These kind of alerts only came into being after the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act in 2012.
No wireless carrier is solely responsible for these alerts and any carrier can volunteer to assist. The FCC does not send out these alerts personally—they’re issued by public safety officials, federal agencies, and/or state and local governments.
Why it pays to be aware …
According to the FCC, when one device receives an alert and another nearby device with the exact same make and model does not, the “silent” device likely receives service from a tower that is outside of the threat zone. Since most people don’t know the service area of their providers’ cell towers, it makes sense NOT to ignore these special notifications.
After the New York and New Jersey bombings in September 2016 it became clear that these alerts needed to be tweaked, after chaos and confusion ensued when they released just the name and age of a suspect. Ten days later the FCC updated their rules for WEA. Instead of limiting the service to sending out 90-word messages, the maximum message length changed to 360 characters for 4G LTE and for other networks. These messages can also now be sent in Spanish.
Another important update was a class of alerts called Public Safety Messages, which are intended to deliver “essential information that could save lives or property”, such as severe weather alerts, notices about boiling potentially hazardous water or locations of emergency shelters.
“With these new rules, we are taking action to make this life-saving service even more useful by incorporating lessons learned from the first four years of service and by levering technological advances,” said former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in a statement.
The FCC is seeking public comment on a few possible improvements to the system, including:
How to add thumbnail-sized photos and symbols in Public Safety Messages
To include future technological advancements to update WEA, and in different languages
To improve education about WEA
Just because you don’t have a WEA device you can still receive them by downloading apps for other alert systems such as NOAA Weather Radio or apps from local and state agencies.
It’s worth a few minutes to check into whether your device is included. If not, you can take steps to insure you receive the latest safety alerts. Because everyone, including CRE professionals, can benefit from these timely, geo-centric alerts. With WEA notices, you can respond and take precautions as needed, wherever and whenever.
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