Grand Island- Emergency Management officials know in weather emergencies, such as tornados, warnings can save lives. But citizens cannot always rely on the traditional warning methods of television, radio, and outdoor sirens.
Beginning this week, through a partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, federal officials will also be able to send warnings directly to cell phones.
Using the new Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, the National Weather Service will send warnings for tornados, flash floods, blizzards and ice storms in the local area to cell towers that serve affected counties. The warnings will go automatically to many newer-model cell phones within range of the towers.
"While these warnings may look like text messages, no phone charges on your phone bill will occur," said Jon Rosenlund, director of Grand Island-Hall County emergency management. "This is just one more way to be alerted for imminent dangers, whether you're at home or on the road."
The short messages will provide very basic information, such as the type of warning, affected areas, and duration.
"When you get this warning message, we encourage you to turn to other sources for more detailed information about what to expect and what actions you should take," said Rosenlund.
Whether citizens will receive the alerts and how the alerts are received, depends on cell phone type and service provider. About 10 percent of the cell phones in use today are already capable of receiving the alerts. Others, such as newer iPhones and Android models, will soon receive software updates that add this feature.
The wireless industry estimates that by 2014 nearly all phones on the market will be WEA-capable.
The alerts are delivered directly from cell tower to cell phone through a one-way broadcast. The system will not track or locate individual cell phones or phone numbers. It simply broadcasts to all phones within range.
Unfortunately, in some cases, this may result in over warning.
"For example, if we issue a warning for Hall County, Neb., it will go to all towers that serve that county. If you live in an adjacent area, such as western Merrick or Hamilton counties, you may get the warning, too," said Andy Bailey, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Pleasant Hill. "The warning message may reach a little beyond the warning boundaries."
The alerts will include a unique ring tone and vibration, but will not interrupt any phone calls or downloads in progress. If on the phone when the warning is issued, the message will appear after the call is ended.
In addition to weather alerts, the system can broadcast AMBER alerts and presidential alerts for national emergencies. On newer phones, these alerts will be turned on by default.
Procedures for opting out of the alerts will vary by carrier.
Local officials also stressed the Wireless Emergency Alert System does not replace the location-specific phone alert systems used within each county, such as GI-Hall Co. Alert.
"While WEA will allow you to receive alerts on the go, based on the county you are currently in, such as on the road when traveling, out at the lake when you are on vacation, or in another town on a business trip," said Rosenlund
"GI-Hall Co. Alert is more exact and will provide similar alerts when your registered address is found in the specific area in question. Using the two together, we can achieve both emergency alert specificity and mobility," Rosenlund said.
To learn more about the Wireless Emergency Alert system, contact the GI-Hall County Emergency Management Department at 308-385-5444 ext. 300 or Michael Moritz with the National Weather Service at 402-462-2127 ext. 726. To find out phone capability of this new alert system, contact the wireless service provider.