A new, first-of-its-kind, national alert system in the U.S. that allows the public to receive major emergency alert notifications on their mobile phones without having to sign up or pay for them went live this past weekend, according to a report from Government Technology.

The new Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) was developed through a partnership between the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Federal Communications Commission and wireless phone carriers in what is seen as an important step forward to increase public safety nationwide, according to FEMA officials.

The new system works with the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) service that wireless phone carriers are set to roll out in the U.S. this year and be capable of sending geographically specific emergency alert notifications similar to text messages to the public.

Individuals will not be charged to receive the messages, and alerting authorities will not pay wireless phone carriers for sending out the notifications, according to FEMA. The alerts will be sent to mobile phones via broadcast technology to avoid the delay that typically happens during an emergency when wireless voice and data services are “highly congested.”

The service will however, require mobile phones with the capability to receive CMAS notifications, said Rick Wimberly, president of Galain Solutions Inc., and blogger for Emergency Management magazine which is affiliated with Government Technology. AT&T, among other carriers provides a list of phones that can receive CMAS notifications.

The service is expected to provide the public three types of alert messages to mobile phones: imminent threats, Amber alerts and presidential messages. According to FEMA officials, however, most alerts are expected to be issued by the National Weather Service when imminent threats of a tornado, tsunami, hurricane, flood and other types of severe weather warnings occur. The alerts are limited to a maximum of 90 characters, and provide basic information such as the type of emergency, when the alert will expire and a recommended course of action.

Almost 20 agencies have received approval from FEMA to send out CMAS alerts, including the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services and the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, according to the report. And another 16 agencies were waiting for approval, according to FEMA. The full list can be seen on the agency’s website.

“The public will be really pleased with this service, however, it’s also my opinion that there will be a certain amount of misunderstanding and there will be questions that will come up by the public,” Wimberly said in the Government Technology story.

It will be important for state and local agencies to educate the public about the new system to keep concerns or problems to a minimum, he said, to avoid, for instance, individuals calling 911 when they receive an alert.

Because the alerts will be brief, they may not provide all the information that citizens need about an emergency situation. The alerts will, however, let citizens know that there is a major situation occurring and that they need to pay attention.