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Cross-posted to State of the Skies

In a move that's been a decade in the making, the Federal government is set to begin a program that will automatically send emergency alerts to 97% of cell phone users in the United States. Similar to the Emergency Alert System that is broadcast over television and radio stations, the Wireless Emergency Alert system will automatically send a free, short alert message to your cell phone based on your geographic location alerting you to severe weather, AMBER Alerts, or other emergency alerts for which they would activate the emergency alert system.

From the USA Today article linked above:

"These text alerts will be very brief, under 90 characters," said National Weather Service spokeswoman Susan Buchanan, "and are intended to prompt people to immediately seek additional information through the wide range of weather alert communications available to them, such as the Internet, television, radio or NOAA Weather Radio."

Private forecasting companies have offered warnings to subscribers before, but this is the first national service by the federal government and the wireless industry.

Buchanan said alerts about very dangerous situations such as tornadoes will give advice such as "seek shelter immediately."

The weather alerts will be used specifically for weather "warnings," not the less-severe weather "watches."

The system triangulates your position using cell phone towers and uses this information to send you urgent safety messages through your cell phone. The FCC says on its information page that these aren't "SMS (text) messages" per se, but rather they will pop up on your phone like an alert that you have to clear off. The FCC also says that cell phone subscribers will be able to opt-out of everything but Presidential alerts (which, up to now, have never been issued) if the user so chooses.

You will only receive alerts for your geographic location. If you are in Richmond, VA, you'll only receive tornado warnings issued for Richmond, VA, as opposed to the counties all around, but not including, Richmond. Similarly, if an AMBER Alert is issued for the state of West Virginia, only cell phone users in West Virginia will receive this AMBER Alert.

This alert system rollout is a major coup for the safety of people across the country, especially in the wake of the incredibly deadly tornado season of 2011, where the lack of access to severe weather alerts may have directly contributed to dozens of deaths. During the April 27th outbreak in Alabama, an early morning line of severe thunderstorms knocked out power to tens of thousands, as well as destroying NOAA Weather Radio transmitters and landline telephone infrastructures. When the powerful tornadoes came through later that afternoon, the tens of thousands of people left in the dark had no weather radios and no electricity to receive warnings fast enough to take action before the tornadoes hit. This system is an added layer of protection for when severe weather approaches.

I urge you not to disable the severe weather alerts once this system becomes active. They could be an inconvenience, but an inconvenience is better than being injured or dead if damaging weather strikes with little warning. Also, please help to get the word out ahead of the conspiracy theorists who are already getting antsy over the idea of the government tracking your cell phone to send you alerts.

Be sure to get a S.A.M.E. enabled NOAA Weather Radio for your house as an added layer of protection, especially if you live in a tornado prone area. These specially built devices, when programmed correctly, are designed to automatically sound a loud alert tone and audibly read off the severe weather alert within seconds of a watch or warning being issued. Numerous companies manufacture these radios, and they all work really well so long as they are programmed correctly. Be sure that the phrase "S.A.M.E." (or Specific Area Message Encoding) is in the product description of the radio. This is the feature that lets the radio go off only for alerts in the county (or counties) you specify.

This wireless emergency alert system is another great example of the Federal government being put to good use. Let's hope the system works well and that lives are saved as a result.

2:27 PM PT: The cell carriers participating in this system are AT&T, Cellcom, Cricket, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless.

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