How Wireless Emergency Alerts Help Save Lives

Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) are free, text-like notifications that tell you when there’s a dangerous situation – manmade or natural disasters like a hurricane or earthquake – where you happen to be. This is a voluntary program supported by wireless operators to help make Americans safer. The alerts will rebroadcast until the situation is no longer a threat. 

The alert has a unique sound and vibration so that consumers, including those with disabilities, receive warning of the dangerous situation. If your phone is on silent or vibrate-only mode, you will receive the alert without the sound. 

WEA will not interrupt your texting or phone call, and the alert message remains on the phone’s notifications received list on many wireless devices. 

There are three different kinds of WEA:

  1. Presidential Alerts – Issued by the U.S. President or a designee.
  2. Imminent Threat Alerts – Includes severe man-made or natural disasters, such as tornadoes, dangerous flooding, shelter in place warnings, etc., where an imminent threat to life or property exists.
  3. AMBER Alerts – Help law enforcement search for and locate an abducted child whose life is in danger, under U.S. Department of Justice's criteria.

In 90-characters or less,  WEA states who is sending the alert, what is happening, who is affected and what action to take. WEA is not a text message because it:

  1. Uses a point-to-multipoint system, which means alert messages will be sent to those within a certain area, unlike text messages that are not location aware. For example, if a Washington, D.C. resident has a WEA-capable device, but happened to be in an area in southern California when an earthquake occurred, the device would receive an “Imminent Threat Alert.”
  2. Uses a different kind of technology to ensure they are delivered immediately. 

Here’s how an alert is sent:

  1. Federal, state, local and tribal public safety agencies must apply to FEMA to become alert-originating authorities
  2. Once the alert-originators are authorized, FEMA authenticates the sender and the alert. 
  3. FEMA transmits the WEA to the more than 100 participating wireless providers who may have customers in that designated alerting area. Only those customers in that target area receive the alert. 

Available since 2012, WEA has helped save lives across the country. Here are a few examples from Connecticut, New York, Utah, Texas and Wisconsin.  

Last Updated November 2016