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The Federal government is imposing itself on your cell phone! But in a good way. Hear me out.

Everyone in the United States has heard that screechy Emergency Alert System tone that makes your skin crawl, be it on television or radio, but now you'll be able to hear it through your cell phones. Early last year, the Federal government began rolling out the Wireless Emergency Alert System (WEA) for folks with certain smartphones through most major carriers in the country. Authorized by the SAFE Port Act of 2006 (see Title VI), the Wireless Emergency Alert System is the latest step forward we've seen on the ever-growing list of advanced warning systems developed to help alert people to the existence of life-threatening natural and man-made disasters.

The Emergency Alert System on television and radio is usually used for severe weather warnings (tornado warnings, especially) and AMBER Alerts, but the National Weather Service and local authorities have a long list of events that they can warn us about, including 911 telephone outages, nuclear power plant emergencies, and even tsunami warnings.

These warnings are useful for folks watching television or radio, but what about everyone else? That's where the Wireless Emergency Alert System comes into play. For folks with most smartphones on most major carriers, the WEA will use your location (based on cell phone tower transmissions) to convey to your phone an instant, free notification message the moment any of the following severe weather warnings are issued for your current location:

In addition to the severe weather warnings listed above, some AMBER Alerts as well as presidential alerts would be sent out through the WEA.

(PS: The Emergency Broadcast/Alert System was designed to let the president address the country as quickly as possible using both TV and radio in the event of a major incident like nuclear war or something similarly improbable. It was not used on 9/11 because the attacks were shown almost instantly on live television, so the EAS wasn't necessary. That they use it for severe weather and child abduction emergencies was good thinking.)

The alert pops up on your phone like a notification instead of a text message, and, at least on my phone, plays that screechy Emergency Alert System tone to make sure the warning doesn't go unnoticed. These alerts only reach your phone if it is switched on and has a signal.

Here's what a flash flood warning looked like on my phone a few months ago:

This is a major step forward when it comes to severe weather warnings. Between television, radio, internet, weather radios, (unreliable) tornado sirensand now cell phones, there is a shrinking list of reasons why anyone with access to modern conveniences wouldn't receive warnings about severe weather.

Folks who have the iPhone 4 and iPhone 5 on AT&T should have received a software update today that gave your phones WEA capabilities.

For a list of smartphones that receive Wireless Emergency Alerts, click the following links to go to that company's WEA page:

  • Verizon
  • AT&T (click "Are Wireless Emergency Alerts available on all devices?")
  • T-Mobile (Link goes to the "alert capable phones" section of their shopping page)
  • Cricket (Cricket's site doesn't specify which devices receive the alerts.)
  • Bluegrass Cellular
  • Cellcom (See question 12, "Can all Cellcome devices receive alerts?")
  • Sprint (List may be outdated or official list of devices.)
  • US Cellular (no list of devices)

There is also an excellent iPhone (and soon, Android) app called iMapWeather Radio that I've recommended for years now. It costs $9.99 but it's well worth it. It's often gone off for warnings before my actual weather radio has gone off. Ignore the bad reviews -- lots of the "0/5 stars ALMOST KILLED!" reviews are people trolling. Here are links to the iMapWeather Radio app in the iTunes Store and in the Google Play Store.

Oh, and don't forget that Republicans want to defund and ultimately abolish the National Weather Service in their ongoing Congressional War on Weather.

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