Disaster Preparedness: Wireless Emergency Alerts Explained

The Wireless Emergency Alert system (WEA), also called the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) and Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN), is a network of notifications sent to mobile devices to warn the public about threats to public safety or missing persons in the vicinity. Certain government and local agencies are authorized to send these messages to users of participating service providers. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the National Weather Service (NWS) collaborate to maintain this system.

The History of Wireless Emergency Alerts

In 2006, Congress introduced and passed the Warning, Alert, and Response Network Act(WARN). This act called for the establishment of a "voluntary National Alert System to provide a public communications system capable of alerting the public on a national, regional, or local basis to emergency situations." In 2007 and 2008, the FCC created the WEA system. The alert system began operation in 2012.

How They Work

To receive a WEA notification, you must have a WEA-enabled phone through one of the more than 150 participating mobile carriers. The CMAS system sends WEAs to your phone when authorized agencies suspect or become aware of danger. The Integrated Public Alert and Warning (IPAWS) system, established alongside CMAS, fulfills a similar purpose, but its reach is farther: In addition to cell phones, IPAWS sends content to cable TV, radio, and other devices and systems.

Through CMAS and WEA, an organization can send an alert to all compatible cell phones in a target geographical area. A WEA message is limited to 90 characters and looks like a text message, but you can distinguish it from a common text by its unique notification tone and vibration.

The FEMA and FCC will periodically conduct tests to ensure that the system is working well. Each WEA-enabled phone should receive the following message: "THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed."

Through these tests, the governing agencies hope to reduce failures of the WEA system, which unfortunately can occur. One reason for failures relates to the specific phone and carrier: Both must be able to receive WEA messages, and "Emergency Alerts" in the settings must be activated. If a phone does not have WEA capabilities or has the alert settings off, the WEA notification will not reach it. Alaskans had this problem in January 2018 when a WEA message for a tsunami appeared on some phones and not others.

In other instances, the system fails by sending an incorrect or accidental notification, such as the ballistic missile threat message that a Hawaii agency sent by accident in early 2018. Other emergency messages have been delayed, as was the case with a 2013 Northeast storm warning, when residents knew about the storm well before the alerts came.

Types of Alerts

A WEA notification will fall into one or three categories: imminent threat, AMBER alert, or presidential alert.

Imminent Threats

Imminent threat alerts encompass severe weather and local emergencies.

  • The National Weather Service (NWS) alerts the public of dangerous weather, including tornadoes, hurricanes, and severe winds. The message includes the type and time of the emergency and any recommended action. For example, the NWS may notify you of a flood warning and caution that you avoid flooded areas.
  • A local emergency can take make forms. Local government and organization discretion determines whether or not an alert is warranted. One example of using WEA notifications for local emergencies was in 2013 after the Boston Marathon bombing. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency sent a WEA message to warn about the danger and direct the public to appropriate shelters.

AMBER Alerts

The AMBER Alert program began after the abduction and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman in 1996. In 2001, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children advocated for nationwide establishment of the AMBER alert system, and by the time the WEA system was created, there was no question about its inclusion. An AMBER alert will include geographical location and a description of the child and the abduction.

Presidential Alerts

The idea for a presidential alert dates back to President Harry Truman, who wanted a national notification system through which he could, through radio, forewarn the nation of a national security threat. At that time, America feared a Soviet nuclear attack. In 2006, President George W. Bush included the presidential alert in the WEA system, but not until October 2018 did any president test or use this tool.

You might think they're a nuisance or disturbance, but don't be mistaken; the Wireless Emergency Alert messages are critical to your and your community's safety. Unlike other forms of communication, network congestion does not affect the transmission of messages, so the network provides the fastest alert system for emergencies. Furthermore, since launching in 2012, the WEA system's developers have worked to fine-tune the system so that it performs the task of alerting you even more efficiently. Improvements and tests are successfully reducing failures in its performance.

To receive WEAs and other alerts, make sure that the emergency notifications setting on your Androd/iOS or Apple phone is turned on.

You are well on your way toward protecting your staff and organization.

Take the next step toward protecting your organization by learning more about emergency notification systems and the vital role they play in your emergency preparedness plan.