ATLANTA -- Starting this week, most Americans will be able to get severe weather warnings sent straight to their cell phones, no matter where they are in the country.
The free Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) are a partnership between the National Weather Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
They're also known as the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) or Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN).
And most people don't have to do anything to get the warnings.
Will it come to my phone?
You will have to have a WEA capable phone in order to receive them. Not all providers are capable of issuing these alerts. The ones that are include AT&T, Bluegrass Cellular, Cellcom, Sprint Nextel, Verizon, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular.
Does it cost any money?
No. This service is offered for free by wireless carriers. WEA messages will not count towards texting limits on your wireless plan.
Do I have to sign up for it?
No. These will automatically come to your WEA capable device starting this week. If you do not want them, you can opt out of receiving WEA messages for imminent threats and AMBER Alerts, but not for Presidential messages. To opt out visit http://www.ctia.org/wea for the instructions.
What types of warnings will they be?
- Tsunami Warnings
- Tornado Warnings
- Flash Flood Warnings
- Hurricane and Typhoon Warnings
- Extreme Wind Warnings
- Blizzard and Ice Storm Warnings
- Dust Storm Warnings
- AMBER Alerts
- Presidential Alerts (such as national emergencies)
What will a warning look like?
These alerts will look like any normal text message. The WEA message will show the type and time of the alert, along with any action you should take. These messages will be limited to 90 characters.
Does it follow you?
If you travel into a threat area after an alert is first sent, your WEA-capable device will receive the message when you enter the area. So if you are vacationing to Florida, your phone's GPS will notice and give you alerts only for the county you are in, NOT your home county. The program does not, however, track you or your phone. Just like when TV stations put up emergency weather alerts, the stations, like WEA, don't know exactly who is tuned in.
Why is this important to me?
Alerts received at the right time can help keep you safe during an emergency. With WEA, alerts can be sent to your mobile device when you may be in harm's way, without need to download an app or subscribe to a service.
How will I know the difference between WEA and a regular text message?
WEA messages include a special tone and vibration, both repeated twice.
Is this the same service public safety agencies have asked the public to register for?
No, but they are complementary. Local agencies may have asked you to sign up to receive telephone calls, text messages, or emails. Those messages often include specific details about a critical event. WEA messages are very short and designed to get your attention in an emergency situation. They may not give all the details you receive from other notification services.
Will a WEA message interrupt my phone conversations?
No, the alert will be delayed until you finish your call.
How often will I receive WEA messages?
You may receive frequent WEA messages during an emergency. Message frequency depends on the number of imminent threats to life or property in your area.
If, during an emergency, I can't make or receive calls or text messages due to network congestion, will I still be able to receive a WEA message?
Yes, WEA messages are not affected by network congestion.
The NWS issues warnings for smaller areas, called polygons. Will my cell phone receive the tornado warning alert if my location is outside of this polygon?
Your cell phone will pick up the tornado warning alert even if was issued for only a part of the county (only county code is used -- all or nothing). The current (2012) software program isn't capable of narrowing down the alert for just those cell phones located within the polygon warning.
How will I receive alerts if I don't have a WEA-capable device?
WEA is one of many ways you can receive emergency notifications. Other sources include NOAA Weather Radio, news media coverage, the Emergency Alert System on radio and TV broadcasts, social media, and other alerting methods offered by local and state public safety agencies. Your best use of WEA is to immediately seek additional information about the imminent threat impacting your area.
To get weather alerts not included in this program, sign up for 11Alive's severe weather alerts at 11Alive.com.