What are Emergency Alert tones on mobile phones?

We’ve had a chance to sample life first-hand in the CMAS (Commercial Mobile Alert System) world.  In the middle Tennessee area where we live, the weather has been threatening.  We’ve had flood, tornado, and freeze warnings in the last three days.  Having such a diversity of weather events in a short period is not unheard of in this neck of the woods.  Here’s what’s new:  people all over the place are talking about, even wondering about, unusual behavior by their cell phones caused by the weather.  It’s been heard in restaurants, churches, even on our morning run.

Who sends the Emeregncy Alerts to cell phones?

Yesterday, Lorin and I were having lunch in a crowded restaurant talking about, you guessed it, FEMA’s IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System) program.  Suddenly, weird tones came from my cell phone and an emergency alert about a freeze warning popped up.  A few seconds later, the same thing happened to Lorin’s phone.  (My cell carrier must be a bit faster.)  A noticeable hush came over the restaurant as people all over the room were receiving the same alerts, reading them, and then talking about, not only the weather, but the unusual behavior of their phones.  Who was sending them the alerts, and who signed them up for them?  (I felt in the know since I knew the answers and they didn’t.)

Sunday morning around 5am, I received my first ever CMAS alert.  Even being an “in the know” kinda guy, at least on this subject, I hadn’t heard the unique tones before.  It took a bit for me to wake up and realize what was going on.

This morning, one of my running buddies struck up a conversation about her priest talking about the alerts during Sunday service.  (Why we were running when a freeze warning had been issued is another story.)

Meantime, one of my Facebook friends in Florida struck up quite a string of comments over the weekend asking questions about receiving an odd AMBER Alert on her cell phone.  Some were questioning why the alert didn’t provide a web site for more info.  They had to go on the internet and find details themselves.  (I again felt in the know as I posted that regulations prohibit the use of web sites in the alerts.)

Are cell phone Emerency Alerts for weather only?

Now, you may not care about my personal experiences…but, there are a couple of points to the stories.   One, CMAS is reaching the public, people are talking about it, and asking questions.  You may not have had so many weather events in your area to see the activity first hand, but you eventually will.  The National Weather Service is using the system often for warnings.  The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has recently started using the system for AMBER Alerts, and the list is growing for more state and local authorities to obtain authority to use the system.  You’ll be able to answer the questions (and feel in-the-know, too).  If you can’t answer the questions, check out the IPAWS web site, our Galain web site, or see our blog posts and other articles in Emergency Management magazine.  In an ideal world, the federal government would have an aggressive advertising campaign promoting the program to the public.  That’s not likely.  Heck, we don’t even know if the federal government will be operating in a few weeks.  So, it will be up to local in-the-know types to spread the word.

Are people paying attention to Wireless Emergency Alerts?

Here’s the second point:  Although people were questioning the source of the alerts (including the asleep me at five on a Sunday morning), it seems they were doing what the alerts wanted them to do.  The people in the restaurant were clearly more tuned in to the impending freeze, and starting changing their afternoon plans.  Getting a flood warning, even at five in the morning, is important stuff in my neighborhood where 100 homes were flooded a few years ago.  I certainly got up and checked the level of the river I can see from my kitchen window.  And, my friends in Florida did exactly what the AMBER alert on their cell phones was intended to do, get their attention and stir them to seek more info…even if it wasn’t clear where to turn to get the info.

The CMAS system (known by cell carriers as Wireless Emergency Alerts and by the iPhone world as Government Alerts) is not perfect.  But, if these first-hand experiences over the last few days are any indication, the system is beginning to be effective…at least for weather warnings and AMBER alerts.  It will be interesting to see local and state agencies start issuing cell alerts for other types of imminent threats, as word spreads that they can do so.  And, if the last few days in middle Tennessee are any indication, word is going to spread.