A simple explanation for alerts on your phone

Does this sound familiar?

  • “We’re driving to Idaho and its raining kinda hard, then my dad gets a “alert” on his phone saying there might be a tornado!!”
  • “I just got an emergency notification.. What??”
  • “An amber alert just set my phone off and I honestly thought the world was ending.”
  • “Anyone else get the terrifying amber alert on their phone”

If you’ve seen one of these alerts, here’s what’s going on:
1) The Federal government and the phone companies have worked together to create what are called “Wireless Emergency Alerts”.

2) The alerts only go to some phones.  The phones that get the alerts:

  • …are capable of getting the messages.  Older phones might not get them.  Even some smartphones don’t get them.
  • …are in the range of cell phone towers selected for the alert.  If you get a flash flood warning, that’s supposed to be for the area you are in when you get the message.
  • …have the message feature turned on.  Not all phone carriers turns on all the messages automatically, though most do.

3) The messages are supposed to be about an emergency.  Most alerts today come from the National Weather Service and some Amber Alert agencies. But local governments can send messages, too, once they are approved by the Federal government and lots of counties have signed up.   The rule is that the alert has to be about an immediate threat to life or property.  So if you get a message, it’s about something important and it’s happening or it’s going to happen soon.

4) The messages are short (90 characters).  So some of them don’t have much detail.  Check the news if you need to know more.

5) The messages don’t cost anything to phone customers.  The government pays for it.

6) The President can send messages too.   But that’s for really BIG emergencies and no president has ever done it.

7) You can turn off the messages that come from everyone other than the President.

Thousands of counties and cities also have a separate emergency notification system that will send you a text (SMS) messages or a phone call when there’s an emergency situation.  Since every community has their own website, we’re sponsoring a new website called the US National Emergency Alert Registry (www.usnear.org).  It will be ready in a few weeks.  Please sign up.

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