A Normal Person’s Explanation for Emergency Alerts on Your Phone

Is this you?

  • “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”
  • “Tonight I got my first ever phone alert from the national weather service.  kinda weird/scary”

If you’ve gotten one of these alerts, you might be wondering what’s going on.  Here’s a quick guide:

1) Wireless Emergency Alerts are the result of work by your wireless carrier, the FCC, FEMA and some other government agencies.  FEMA has created the network and the carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, etc.) are cooperating.

2) The alerts go to phones that fit into these categories:

– First, they are capable of getting the messages.  Older phones may not get them.  Even some smartphones don’t get them.

– Second, the phone is in the range of towers selected for the message.  The messages are supposed to go based on where you are.  So if you get a flash flood warning, that’s supposed to be in the area you are in.

– Third, you didn’t turn off (or you did turn on) the messages.  Not every carrier turns on all the messages by default, though we think that most do.

3) The messages are supposed to be about an emergency.  Mostly right now, they are coming from the National Weather Service and some state Amber Alert agencies. But local governments can send messages, too, once they are approved by FEMA, and over 150 counties have signed up.   The rules, according to FEMA, is that they have to be about an imminent threat to life or property.  So if you get a message, it’s about something important to someone.

4) The messages are short (90 characters).  So some of them are pretty cryptic.  Check the news if there’s not much detail.

5) The messages don’t cost you anything directly.  But some of them might cost you some sleep (many reports of noisy alarms).

6) The President can send messages too.  As far as we know, he hasn’t done that yet.

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

If you live in one of several thousand counties or cities that have signed up for an emergency notification system (brand names such as Hyper-Reach, Cassidian, Everbridge, etc.), you can also get 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.