Winter Storm Good Test for Mobile Phone Emergency Alert System

By Jonathan Spira on 8 February 2013
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CMASIf you are wondering who texted you about the blizzard on Thursday, it wasn’t from me.  However, like many others, I did receive a text message around 4:19 p.m.  It read:

Imminent Severe Alert
Blizzard Warning this area til 1:00 PM Sat.  Prepare.  Avoid Travel.  Check media.

and was signed by the National Weather Service (NWS).

Until that moment, I was working under the presumption that New York City would still be getting a light dusting of snow, while Boston would be buried.  The forecast had changed several times and the snow wasn’t even scheduled to arrive until late Friday so it could change again.  Yet the modern version of the Emergency Broadcast System that would barge in on your favorite television program (“This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.  This is only a test…”) emanated from my pocket.

This alert was from the Commercial Mobile Alert System, or CMAS, and it was a Wireless Emergency Alert, or WEA.  The system itself is less than one year old and sends alerts to people with a CMAS-compatible mobile phone within a targeted area.  The alerts are issued by federal, state or local governments and send with the cooperation of the subscriber’s mobile operator.  Unlike regular notifications, which are sent based on billing information (i.e. the notification might be for New York City, where you live, but you are visiting San Francisco), wireless emergency alerts are sent to those currently in a specific geographic area, including visitors.

CMAS alerts are similar to text messages but limited to 90 characters.  It does, however, make a unique sound and vibration when it is received by your device.

Most CMAS messages are issued by the National Weather Service but they can also be sent on order of the President of the United States and for Amber Alerts.  The system is designed to ensure that mobile phone subscribers are not over alerted as messages would lose their urgent nature if that were to happen.

My first message wasn’t for the snowstorm, however.  I received a Flash Flood Warning in July, another one in August, and a total of four alerts for Hurricane Sandy including two MANDATORY EVACUATION messages, one advising I should “Take Shelter Now,” and one telling me to “Go indoor immediately and remain inside.  DO NOT DRIVE.”

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon as well as several smaller mobile operators offer the service and regularly transmit messages but not all mobile devices support CMAS nor are all geographic areas covered.

Devices that do support CMAS include the Apple iPhone 5, several recent BlackBerry models, Samsung’s Galaxy S II and S III, and the Motorola Atrix 2.  AT&T’s LTE network does not yet support CMAS but its older HSPA (high speed packet access) network does.


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