Guide to Wireless Emergency Alerts

Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) are a critical part of the United States’ ability to respond to emergencies and send life-saving information to those in a disaster area. Relevant authorities use these alerts in conjunction with other emergency messages from sources like news broadcasts, radio and television’s Emergency Alert System and outdoor sirens. By knowing more about WEAs, you can better prepare your business or organization for emergencies.

Take a moment to learn more about what WEA messages are, their main types and the capabilities of WEA devices. Here, we’ll also cover the answers to frequently asked questions about WEAs and how an emergency notification company can help your organization. We’ll also explain why you should still sign up for emergency alerts from your local government even if you receive WEAs.

What Are Wireless Emergency Alerts?

WEAs are short emergency messages broadcast from cell towers to every WEA-enabled mobile device in a specific area. These messages allow authorized agencies, such as tribal, territorial, local, state and federal alerting authorities, to send out an emergency alert quickly. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) partners with wireless providers and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to deliver WEAs to people’s devices for public safety. Typically, wireless providers rely on cellular broadcast technology to deliver these alerts.

WEAs don’t require anyone to subscribe to a service or download an app to receive them. As a result, agencies can send these alerts to many devices with ease, informing the public of various disasters and emergencies. Additionally, these messages provide life-saving information and are short in length.

Types of WEA Alerts

Authorized agencies use several types of WEA alerts for specific situations. For example, an agency could send an AMBER Alert to alert a community of a kidnapping or send an imminent threat alert warning people of an extreme weather event. Learn more about the main types of WEA alerts below:

  • America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response (AMBER) Alerts: AMBER Alerts take the form of urgent bulletins sent out due to child-abduction cases. These alerts are crucial in informing the public of kidnappings and raising the chances a missing child gets home safely. A governmental agency can enable its community to help search for a missing child by sending out this alert.
  • Imminent threat alerts: Government agencies send out imminent threat alerts about threatening emergencies, such as active shooters, extreme weather events and human-made or natural disasters. These alerts only occur when these threats are happening or soon to happen.
  • Public safety alerts: Unlike imminent threat alerts, authorized agencies send out public safety alerts after an imminent threat has happened or when a threat isn’t imminent. These alerts are about events less dangerous than those described by imminent threat alerts. 
  • Opt-in test messages: Authorized agencies use opt-in messages to test state and local officials’ ability to deliver their WEAs to the public. These messages will always state they’re a test so they don’t cause panic.
  • Presidential alerts: The President of the United States of America can send WEA messages in the case of a national emergency.

What Devices Will WEAs Show Up On?

Most smartphone and many other devices are compatible with WEAs, which will receive them in the event of an emergency. Most of the time, WEAs will show up on smartphones. However, you can find devices other than handsets that are capable of receiving them. For example, some smartwatches and tablets can also receive WEAs.

Most wireless carriers, including Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T, offer WEA-capable devices. As well, all of the top phone manufacturers offer phones and other mobile devices with WEA capabilities. For example, Apple, Google, LG, Motorola, Nokia and Samsung all offer WEA-capable smartphones. While phones made before 2012 may not have WEA capabilities, almost all new phones sold in the US are WEA-compatible. 

What Are the Capabilities of WEA Devices?

A WEA-capable device can only receive messages of 360 or fewer characters. And older devices may be able to receive messages of 90 characters or less. The capabilities of a WEA device are determined by the WEA version it supports. As the technology has developed, the FCC and FEMA have continued to develop WEA alerts to provide more information in the event of an emergency.  As a result, you can find three versions of WEAs available today — WEA 1.0, WEA 2.0 and WEA 3.0.

Learn more about the different WEA versions below:

  • WEA 1.0: A device with WEA 1.0 capabilities can only receive messages with up to 90 characters. These devices may also receive messages with clickable URLs that link users to phone numbers or websites. 
  • WEA 2.0: As an upgrade to WEA 1.0, WEA 2.0 allows emergency personnel to send alerts with a maximum of 360 characters to compatible devices. These alerts support public safety messages, consumer opt-in functionally for receiving local and state messages, alert message prioritization and Spanish-language messages. It also includes all of the functionality of WEA 1.0. 
  • WEA 3.0: WEA 3.0 offers all of WEA 1.0 and WEA 2.0’s abilities, and it adds greater geo-targeting abilities. With this improved geo-targeting, emergency professionals can define the alert area more precisely and avoid sending messages to people outside the emergency area. If you have a WEA 3.0-compatible device, you may need to go to your device’s settings and turn on location services to receive the benefits of geo-targeting.

Alongside the functionality of various WEA versions, your device’s WEA capabilities might change based on where it’s located when it receives an alert. For example, depending on which mobile provider’s service area your device is located in, its capabilities can be different. Occasionally – but rarely – if your wireless service provider is conducting network maintenance and upgrades, WEAs might not be available.

More advanced devices tend to have greater WEA functionality. For instance, the latest mobile devices and smartphones are more likely to receive WEA 3.0 alerts, while older devices are more likely to only receive WEA 1.0 alerts. Usually, a wireless provider will have a list of their devices indicating their WEA abilities.

WEA Frequently Asked Questions

Many consumers and businesses have questions about WEAs. Since these alerts are essential to public safety, you may want to be as informed about them as possible. Review some of the main answers to frequently asked WEA questions below:

Can I Turn WEA Alerts On and Off?

Compatible WEA devices are usually automatically signed up to receive WEA messages, meaning you won’t have to turn them on to receive them. However, state and local testing alerts are typically disabled by default, so you’ll have to turn them on if you want to receive them.

If you want to turn WEA alerts off, you can block some of them. For example, you can turn off public safety messages and AMBER Alerts. However, you can’t turn off presidential alerts.

Can I Block WEA messages?

You can only block state and local testing alerts, public safety messages and AMBER Alerts. However, it’s not recommended to turn these alerts off, as they’re meant to keep you and others safe in the event of an emergency. In addition, due to the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act, people can’t block WEA messages sent by the president.

Are WEA Messages Free?

WEA messages are a public service, and as a result, they’re completely free. After you receive one, you won’t have to pay any data or connection fees.

Who Will Receive WEA Alerts?

Agencies broadcast WEA alerts to the specific geographic area impacted by an emergency. For example, if an agency sent an alert to a zone in North Carolina, everyone with a WEA-capable mobile device would receive the alert, regardless of whether they’re a resident or just visiting the area. In other words, if you were visiting a zone affected by an emergency in North Carolina, but you live in New York, you’d still receive the alert since your mobile device is in the alert zone.

Are WEAs Text Messages?

WEAs aren’t text messages, even though they look like them. WEAs are transmitted using technology that’s not the same as the system used for SMS text messages and voice calls.

What Will Happen When I Receive a WEA Message?

When you receive a WEA alert, you’ll see it on your device’s screen, appearing much like a text message. These alerts will also call attention to themselves with unique vibrations and signals to ensure those with vision or hearing-related disabilities notice them.

Who Sends WEA Alerts?

Various agencies and authorities send out WEAs to the public. These alert originators include local and state government authorities and various federal agencies. Authorized public officials will send these alerts through FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) to wireless carriers participating in the WEA program. 

Do WEAs Track My Location?

No. While some people think WEAs track your location to send relevant messages, these alerts don’t work like that. Instead, nearby cell towers broadcast these messages to WEA-capable devices inside a geographic location. If your WEA-capable device is within a defined geographic location’s range, you’ll receive the message.

How Do I Know if My Wireless Carrier Offers WEAs?

All of the major wireless carriers offer WEA-compatible devices and transmit WEA messages. Over 100 wireless services providers support WEA messages.  If a wireless carrier doesn’t provide WEAs, the FCC requires it to notify its customers about the lack of WEAs. Before you choose a wireless carrier, it’s smart to confirm that they provide WEA-compatible devices and review the extent of their offerings. 

Will WEA Alerts Display on Devices Other Than Handsets?

WEAs will display on more devices than just handsets. For example, some tablets and smartwatches can receive WEAs.

How Geographically Precise Are WEAs?

When the WEA program first began, wireless providers typically sent alerts to geographic areas restricted to the countries or counties impacted by an emergency situation. In 2017, WEAs became even more precise. During this year, new rules were implemented that required wireless providers to send alerts to areas in emergency situations even when it was a single city or town. These alerts had to be sent to the best-approximated area affected by an emergency rather than the entire surrounding area.

In 2019, WEAs continued to evolve their precision, as participating wireless providers had to improve their alerts’ geo-targeting abilities even more. With these rules in place, providers must send their alerts to areas within a tenth of a mile overshoot, although this rule applies only to devices supporting WEA 3.0.

How Do I Know My Device Can Receive WEA Alerts?

If you want to find out if your device can receive WEA alerts, it’s a good idea to check with your wireless service provider. Because there are a few providers the don’t offer WEAs on any of their devices, it’s crucial to know if you’re receiving service from a company that doesn’t send out these alerts.

Additionally, some providers only offer WEA messages to some of their devices and in only specific areas. As a result, it’s best practice to check what WEA-capable devices your provider offers and where the company can deliver WEA alerts.

Will a WEA Interrupt My Phone Call?

WEAs will not interrupt your phone call. If you’re on the phone when a sender transmits a WEA, you probably won’t receive the message until after you end the call.

How Long Do WEA Messages Last?

Due to rules put in place in 2019, WEA messages have to be in a location and format that a wireless customer can access for up to 24 hours after receiving the message. Unless you delete the message within that time frame, it’ll stay on your mobile device or wireless phone for a day. The long-lasting nature of these messages allows you to have additional time to look over the alert and any emergency information it provides.

If I Get WEA Messages Should I Still Sign Up for Local Emergency Alerts?

Yes. Although WEA messages can warn you of many emergency situations, there are many kinds of dangerous situations that won’t result in a WEA message.  For example, boil water alerts, which are one of the most common types of alerts are not usually sent by WEA. And messages from your local emergency management or public safety agency will often be more targeted and accurate.

How Hyper-Reach Can Help Emergency Managers

At Hyper-Reach, our emergency notification solutions give emergency managers the ability to quickly transmit messages to numerous recipients. Since we have a variety of sending methods, we maximize the chances a recipient sees the message and can take appropriate action fast. When you partner with us, our solutions allow emergency managers to easily craft messages, define audiences based on characteristics or geography and provide information on when and how to send various messages.

The various mass notification features and tools we offer to businesses and organizations make us a go-to choice for emergency managers in many fields. Alongside sending messages to users, we also give managers the tools to send emergency alerts via social media, internet advertising, desktop pop-ups, digital signage and sirens. We provide easy user management to help managers easily send out alerts to relevant users. Additionally, our precise geographic targeting makes it simple to send alerts to people affected by an emergency.

We package our critical event management solutions into one unified communications platform. Some of our solutions include crisis management and incident response to ensure you can react quickly to an emergency and manage it appropriately. We also offer emergency messaging, mobile phone alerts, boil water advisories, on-call communications, weather alerts, non-emergency communication and more. Our many types of notifications assist organizations as they attempt to keep people fully informed.

Learn More About Our Alert System

With all the ways Hyper-Reach can help emergency managers better notify audiences about emergencies, you might be interested in partnering with us. Our many solutions can help emergency managers in various fields better protect people, profit margins and property. Since our software meets all of a public alert system’s strict requirements, you can trust our solutions to quickly and reliably deliver informative messages to people affected by an emergency.

If you’re interested in our alert system, take a moment to request a demo and free quote. For those who need more information, please feel free to contact us or review our solutions.