Citizens To Receive Automatic Emergency Cell Phone Messages

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Citizens To Receive Automatic Emergency Cell Phone Messages

Leonardtown, MD - 4/25/2012

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By Dick Myers

St. Mary’s County citizens with cellphones of the three major carriers will now be getting text messages of emergency situations. The St. Mary’s County Commissioners on Tuesday agreed to sign an agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to participate in the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).

With the agreement, citizens with cell phone service from Verizon, AT&T and Sprint Nextel will automatically receive text messages with warning notifications. There will be no need to sign up for the service; everyone will automatically receive the messages. The nationwide service was activated on April 7.

Messages from the St. Mary’s County Department of Public Safety will be received on local emergencies, from Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) for state emergencies and from FEMA for national emergencies.

IPAWS was created by Executive Order 13407 that states: “It is the policy of the United States to have an effective, reliable, integrated flexible and comprehensive system to alert the American people….and to ensure under all conditions the President can communicate with the American people.” IPAWS is designed to complement the Emergency Alert System (EAS) which includes broadcast emergency announcements.

The decision to sign on to IPAWS was delayed several weeks after Commissioner Cynthia Jones (R: 1st) questioned the agreement and said she needed more time to review it. She was concerned that perhaps the local public safety agency was turning over control to the federal government, although Director Bob Kelly assured her that was not the case. But, in the end she voted to sign the agreement along with the other four commissioners.

Last year’s hurricane is an example of the type of emergency for which citizens would receive text messages. The system employed by the carriers is called the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS). The messages are called Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) by FEMA.

Here is some information about them from the FEMA website:

What does a WEA look like on a mobile phone?

WEAs use a unique ring tone and vibration to signal that an alert has arrived.  The unique vibration, which distinguishes the alert from a regular text message, is particularly helpful to people with hearing or vision-related disabilities.  Alerts will automatically “pop up” on the mobile device screen and will be limited to 90 characters.

WEAs will not preempt calls in progress.  In addition, individuals will be able to opt-out of Imminent Threat or AMBER alerts.  Individuals will not be able to opt-out of Presidential alerts.

What should I do if I get a WEA?

Due to the 90 character limit, alerts will contain only basic information.  In most cases the alert will only indicate the type of event (e.g. tornado), the time until the alert expires, and recommended action.  To get more specific information, the best response is to check other sources of information, including radio or television, to see if there is a corresponding Emergency Alert System (EAS) message with additional details and/or local news coverage of the event. 

How does a CMAS/WEA alert reach a mobile device?

CMAS/WEA alerts are activated by authorized alerting authorities (generally, a local or State agency or the National Weather Service).  The alerts are targeted to specific geographic areas, generally a county. If a CMAS/WEA-capable mobile device is physically located in that area, it will automatically receive and display the message.  Every WEA has an expiration date/time and will be resent within the affected area until it expires; however, each individual wireless device will display the alert only once.  If a wireless customer travels into the affected area after the WEA was originally sent, and the alert has not expired, they will still receive the alert.

Will wireless customers be charged for CMAS/WEA alerts?

Wireless customers will not be charged for the receipt of WEA messages. In addition, alerting authorities will not be charged by wireless carriers for distributing CMAS/WEA alerts.

Are WEAs the same as text messages?

No, WEA are not the same as text messages. WEA will not have to be opened like SMS text messages, but will “pop up” on the device’s screen.  A key differentiator between the CMAS/WEA capability and the existing Short Message Service Point-to-Point (SMS-PP)--a one-to-one or one-to-few alerting service--is that WEA uses SMS-Cell Broadcast (SMS-CB), a one-to-many service, which simultaneously delivers messages to multiple recipients in a specified area. By using SMS-CB as the delivery technology service, WEAs avoid the congestion issues currently experienced by traditional SMS-PP alerting services, which translates into faster and more comprehensive delivery of messages during times of emergency

Will CMAS/WEA track a person’s location?

No, CMAS/WEA will not track an individual’s locations or personal data, as it uses SMS-CB, a broadcast (one-way) technology. This assures that authorities cannot collect any subscriber-related data, including details on who is in the targeted area, who has successfully received the emergency alert, or who may have opted out.  

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