Monday, February 10, 2014

What Was That Sound Coming From My Phone?

Late season snow storm leads to long commutes.
How many of you were awakened by a loud air raid sounding alarm Sunday morning?

If you were, you now know what the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) sounds and looks like.

You may have received similar alerts for recent AMBER Alerts for missing and endangered children, but this was one of the first times it was used in the region for a weather event.

The City of Portland issued the alert urging residents to stay indoors as the snow and ice storm intensified. Some of you outside Multnomah County may have received the alert due to the systems utilization on cell towers, see explanation below.
WEA issued on February 8, 2014

With a new year upon us, we have seen a LOT of weather advisories, especially with Snowpacolypse 2014. When weather emergencies occur, warnings can save lives.  In this day and age, traditional warning methods such as television, radio, and perhaps an outdoor siren won't reach everyone.

Emergency Officials now have a new warning tool to send messages to cell nearly all mobile phones in an affected area.  These short 90 character messages are announced by a loud and unique alarm.  The messages can be sent to all cell phones within range of  designated cell towers via the federally coordinated Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS).

 Currently the system can only alert an entire county if there is an emergency within that area, there is no to scale down the alert area.  The alert will only give you a brief explanation of the hazard. You should to turn to other sources, such as television or your NOAA All-Hazard radio, to get more detailed information about what is happening and what actions  you should take.

The Three Types of Wireless Emergency Alerts:

The Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) can be used to broadcast three types of emergency alerts:
  • Presidential Alerts - Issued by the U.S. President in the event of a nationwide emergency.
  • Emergency Alerts - Typically issued by the National Weather Service; in the Portland/Vancouver  Metro area, these would include tornado, flooding, volcano, ice storm and blizzard warnings. 
  • AMBER Alerts - Issued by law enforcement to share information about child abduction.  

Please Do Not Turn Alerts Off!

As appears on Iphone
Most likely your phone gives you the option to turn off or opt out of receiving AMBER Alerts and Emergency Alerts.  We strongly urge you to leave both alert categories on until local agencies can get the kinks worked out of the system.  System errors may cause duplicate and redundant messages.  We know these alerts can get very annoying, but turning off them off takes a very powerful tool away from alerting agencies. 

For Illustration only. 

Is Your Phone Ready for WEA?  

If you have an older model phone, you may not receive the Wireless Emergency Alerts.  Most newer model phones of the iPhone and Android models are currently coming with this added feature.  
Check with your service provider to find out if your phone is WEA-capable.  AT&T, Cricket, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon all have information about the new alert system on their websites.  

Key Things to Know: 

  • WEA messages may will appear over your home screen, even if your phone is locked.
  • The alert message will include a unique ringtone and vibration.
  • You will never be charged for WEA messages.
  • Emergency alerts will not interrupt any calls or downloads in progress. If you’re on the phone when the alert goes out, you’ll get the message when you end your call.
  • You need not have GPS or any other special features turned on to receive the alerts. 
  • The system does not identify your location or phone number — it simply sends the message to all devices in a given area.
  • If you’re on the road and enter an area with an active warning, you’ll receive a WEA message as soon as you come within range of one of the affected cell towers.
  • Regardless of your phone number or area code you will get the alert if you are in the designated area.
  • No phone registration is required to receive WEA alerts.

Cell Tower Geography May Lead to Over-Warning:

Because cell towers broadcast in a radius or circle, their coverage areas don't line up neatly with county boundaries.  This means you may receive warnings for an adjacent county if you are within a few miles of the border.  For example if you are in Camas, WA you may receive the alert from Multnomah County.

The alerts are delivered directly from cell tower to cell phone through a one-way broadcast.  The Commercial Mobile Alert System does 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 a weather warning is issued for a particular county, it will go to all towers that serve that county.

Towers in urban areas generally serve a radius of two to five miles, and in rural areas up to 10 miles, so the warning message may reach a little beyond the warning boundaries.

The weather alert sent on Saturday was a good example of this.  Eventually these alerts will get to where we can pin point a smaller affected area instead of the entire county.  Until then, please be patient as these alerts will improve over time.

** Some Information and pictures shared from

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