(USA Today) - Wireless carriers and the federal government are launching a system to automatically warn people of dangerous weather and other emergencies via a special type of text messaging to cellphones.
The Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) service, which begins this month, is free, and consumers won't have to sign up. Warnings will be location-based: If you're traveling, you'll get an alert for whatever emergency is happening where you are.
"Wireless carriers representing more than 97 percent of subscribers voluntarily agreed to develop and offer free, geographically targeted wireless emergency alerts," said Amy Storey, spokeswoman for the CTIA- The Wireless Association. AT&T, Cellcom, Cricket, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless are participating.
Alerts will be issued for such life-threatening events as tornadoes, flash floods, hurricanes, typhoons, tsunamis, dust storms, extreme winds, blizzards and ice storms.
"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."
According to the weather service, a watch means a specific type of bad weather is possible during the next few hours, while a warning means that type of weather has been observed, or is expected soon.
In addition to "imminent threat" warnings for severe weather and earthquakes, WEA can also issue AMBER Alerts for missing children and Presidential Alerts for national emergencies. People can opt out of AMBER and Weather Alerts but not Presidential Alerts.
An alert will look like a text, but the system uses a different technology that isn't subject to congestion or wireless network delays, the CTIA said.
WEAs are a point-to-multipoint system, Storey says, which means alert messages will be sent to those within a targeted area, unlike text messages, which are not location aware.
The alerts don't have anything to do with where the phone was registered or what area code the phone has; the closest cell phone tower will broadcast the warnings to all cell phones in that area.
For example, if a person with a WEA-capable device from Washington, D.C., happened to be in Oklahoma City when a tornado warning was issued for Oklahoma City, they would receive an alert on their device.
The bulk of the warnings, Storey predicts, will be weather related.
"Given that there are more mobile devices than Americans in the U.S., it makes sense to warn wireless consumers about threats on their mobile devices, since they can receive them anytime and anywhere," Storey says.
"This is another great way of receiving warnings immediately, just like weather radio and other sources," weather service spokesman Chris Vaccaro said.
Vaccaro says people should not rely only on mobile devices for weather warnings since they can lose power. He urges using a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio, which has longer-lasting battery backup.
The WEA system is a collaboration by the wireless industry, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Weather Service and other agencies.
For a answers to frequently asked questions about the alerts, click here.