Carroll County Times

You've been warned: Wireless providers enroll in emergency alerts for severe weather

They are short and to the point.

They warn of potentially life-threatening weather, Amber Alerts and messages from the president in case of emergency.

They are sent to mobile phones via text message immediately.

Wireless emergency alerts, sent immediately after warnings are issued, are being implemented in a joint effort by the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

This month, the National Weather Service will start utilizing wireless emergency alerts for tornado, flash flood and blizzard warnings, among others. They will go directly to wireless users in an affected county automatically.

"This is hopefully going to be a nationwide way to bridge the communication gap between when warnings are issued and when the public gets the information," said meteorologist Jared Klein, of the National Weather Service's Baltimore-Washington forecast office in Sterling, Va.

The kickoff date is not yet clear, Klein said. But once the wireless alerts start being sent, they will join many different platforms the National Weather Service utilizes to inform the public.

Warnings are already broadcast by NOAA radio, relayed through the Emergency Alert System by local broadcasters, posted to the National Weather Service's website and mentioned by several media providers.

Yet with those alerts, it required a user to be logged on or tuned in to hear them. Assuming a cell phone is turned on, the messages will be received right away.

Wireless emergency alerts will be sent to all phones capable of receiving text messages, assuming cell phone providers are taking part in the service. Most are: AT&T, Sprint Nextel, Verizon Wireless and U.S. Cellular are among those enrolled.

When the alerts are sent via text message, users will have a special tone and vibration, both repeated twice.

Users can block weather warnings and Amber alerts but emergency alerts from the president cannot be blocked.

Customers do not have to sign up to receive alerts. They are automatically enrolled. The messages are free.

The alerts are geographically targeted. Only customers in a particular threat area will receive them.

The National Weather Service no longer issues tornado warnings on a county-by-county basis. Instead, locations in the direct path of a tornado receive warnings. Those areas would be the same ones to receive text alerts.

One of the keys to the success of the program is making sure only essential messages are being sent out, Klein said.

During a NOAA Heritage Week panel discussion in February, meteorologists discussed how too many issued warnings could lead to distrust.

"These false alarms could be causing a problem, but what's the opposite?" said Gina Eosco, a communications research associate for the American Meteorological Society during the panel discussion. "What if we had a lot of unwarned storms that did produce tornadoes. How is the public going to feel about that?"

The program is still in its infancy. Testing for the system took place in New York last year. It will be interesting to see if state and local emergency managers plan to use the system for additional alerts in the future, said Maryland Emergency Management Agency spokesman Ed McDonough.

The messages could be used when a hurricane threatens the state. Rather than having each county issue individual warnings, the state could send one to any areas in the direct path of the storm.

The response would be similar to the National Weather Service's wireless emergency alerts.

"There are a lot of tools in the tool box for alerting the public," McDonough said, "and this is going to be another helpful one."