Starting in July, cell phone users may receive warning messages about severe weather, a chemical spill, or some other hazardous situation. The messages are made possible by the new Commercial Mobile Alert System, referred to as CMAS. CMAS is a partnership between the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Communications Commission and participating wireless carriers including T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint Nextel and Verizon.
The system allows public safety officials to send geographically targeted emergency alerts to wireless devices. The system uses cell broadcast technology to simultaneously deliver emergency alert messages to multiple recipients. This is different from the short message service technology used to send text messages. Emergency alert cell broadcasts will work even if a wireless network’s circuits are overloaded causing voice, text and data transmissions to fail. One of the primary advantages of CMAS is that it sends critical emergency alerts when radio or television may not be available, such as when the recipient is outdoors, at work or at the pool. The system does this using Wireless Emergency Alerts. The WEA messages are similar to a text message, but are limited to only 90 characters.
Three types of WEA are available:
1. Presidential messages, issued only during national-level emergencies.
2. Imminent threat messages, issued for severe weather, natural hazards, man-made hazards and civil disturbances.
3. AMBER Alerts, issued for child abductions
To receive WEA messages, you must have a cell phone or other wireless device that is Wireless Emergency Alerts capable. For a complete list of WEA capable devices, check your wireless provider’s website or www.ctia.org/WEA. Many new Android phones are now WEA capable. iPhones are currently not WEA capable, but Apple has announced they will provide a future software upgrade for iPhone 4 and 4S users enabling the feature. It is expected that most commercially available phones will be WEA capable by the end of 2014.
– Bob Boyd, NCEM