Wireless Emergency Alerts

With more devices than Americans, it’s logical emergency personnel view mobile devices as important communications tools to alert people as soon as possible that their lives or property are seriously at risk.  

That’s why CTIA and the wireless industry, along with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), developed the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) to send concise, text-like messages to users’ WEA-capable mobile devices. This ensures as many Americans as possible are alerted to the dangerous situations.

There are three different kinds of alerts:

  1. Presidential Alerts – Alerts issued by the President or a designee;
  2. Imminent Threat Alerts – Alerts that include severe man-made or natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc., where an imminent threat to life or property exists; and
  3. AMBER Alerts – Alerts that meet the U.S. Department of Justice's criteria to help law enforcement search for and locate an abducted child.

Mobile users are not charged for receiving these text-like alerts and are automatically enrolled to receive them.  

Officially available in April 2012, there are already a number of success stories across the country on how WEA saved people’s lives. For example:

Why WEA are Unique:

While these alerts appear on a person's mobile device similar to a text message, Wireless Emergency Alerts are not text messages. There are two fundamental reasons why WEA are unique:

  1. WEA use a different kind of technology to ensure they are delivered immediately and are not subjected to potential congestion (or delays) on wireless networks. 
  2. WEA use a point-to-multipoint system, which means alert messages will be sent to those within a targeted area, unlike text messages which are not location aware. For example, if a Washington, D.C. has a WEA-capable device, but happened to be in an area in southern California when an earthquake occured, the device would receive an “Imminent Threat Alert.”

What Happens When You Receive an Alert:

Before consumers receive their alerts, FEMA must first authorize the federal, state, local and tribal public safety agencies.

FEMA graphic

Once these alert originators are authorized, FEMA takes the messages from the organization and transmits the message to the participating wireless providers. Based on the information received from the alerting originator, the wireless providers disseminate the message to WEA-capable phones in the specified geographic zone.

FEMA Wireless Emergency Alert procedure

When the alert is sent out, the alert has a unique audible signal and vibration cadence so all consumers, including individuals with disabilities, are aware of the danger.If your phone is on silent or vibrate only, you will receive the alert, but will not get the WEA sound.

These alerts are no more than 90 characters, and include the following information:

  • Who is sending the alert
  • What is happening
  • Who is affected
  • What action to take

The alert messages will not disrupt text, calls or data sessions that are in progress.

These alerts are rebroadcast until the emergency situation has passed and is no longer a threat to those in the area.

How to Know if You Have a WEA-capable device and if WEA is Available in Your Area:

There are a number of WEA-capable devices available, including many feature phones. Prepaid mobile devices may also be WEA-capable. In addition, many of the new phones that are sold from participating carriers are able to transmit these alerts. If your device has the CTIA Wireless Emergency Alerts logo, then it is WEA-capable.

Wireless Emergency Alerts Logo

To receive these alerts, you may need to only upgrade your device’s software. To confirm your device is capable of receiving the alerts and are available in your area, please check with your wireless provider.

Here is a list of participating carrier websites. If your provider is not listed, it is likely working to make the alerts available for its customers soon.
Last Updated: November 2013
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