The wireless industry and FEMA are joining forces in a unique partnership to send out text alerts from the National Weather Service, giving millions of smartphone users warnings they may be in the path of dangerous and life threatening weather such as that which hit the Mid-Atlantic Region last weekend.

The nationwide text emergency alert system – called Wireless Emergency Alerts- is the brainchild of CTIA-The Wireless Association which enlisted major telecom carriers to send out National Weather Service alerts to their subscribers whenever there’s a serious weather threat and partnered with the Weather Service to get it started.

“These alerts will make sure people are aware of any impending danger and provide them with the information needed so they can be safe until the threat is over,” CTIA spokeswoman Amy Storey told Breaking Gov.

The Weather Service, FEMA and the Federal Communications Commission put the infrastructure in place last week but the project is now waiting for the wireless carriers to come online, a FEMA spokesman said. Once that happens, alerts will go out to wireless customers to warn them of impending dangerous storms such as the one that caused damaged throughout the Mid-Atlantic region (photo above).

“The important thing to understand is that the back office systems are in place,” the spokesman said. “The remaining element is the wireless carriers.”

Once the system is fully operational, he said consumers must be ready to immediately take action when they receive an alert.

“The messages are very short, and there’s not a lot of significant time to verify the alert,” he added.

How it works: The alerts are initiated by authorized federal, state, local and tribal public safety agencies and aggregated by FEMA. Next, FEMA transmits the messages to the participating wireless carriers. Finally, the wireless carriers broadcast the message to subscribers with WEA-capable phones in the specified geographic zone.

Consumers must have WEA-enabled devices to receive the notifications. There are a number of these devices available today, and many of the new phones that are sold from participating carriers will be able to transmit these alerts. To receive these alerts, a consumer might need to only upgrade the device’s software, Storey said.

The availability of WEA-enabled devices varies widely from carrier to carrier at this point, according to the Witchita Eagle.

T-Mobile has 16 phones that are alert-capable, according to the company’s website. Verizon has 13, including six versions of the Droid. Sprint has 12 phones capable of receiving the alerts, though a company website indicates at least some will have to be programmed to receive the alerts.

AT&T has only three alert-ready phones, according to the Witchita Eagle but is in the process of adding more.

The beauty of the alert system is its simplicity, according to industry websites. A consumer is not required to download an app or apply for the service. The message will be no longer than 90 characters, and the WEA messages include a special tone and vibration, both repeated twice to get the consumer’s attention.

The system is free and automatic. There’s no need to sign up or download an app. As long as the cell phone is WEA-capable, consumers will get wireless alerts for the most dangerous types of weather.

The local alerts will be beamed to a subscriber’s mobile device even if they are just visiting a location. A California smartphone will receive an alert in New Jersey, for instance, if a person is physically in that location.

The same warnings won’t be sent to the same phones repeatedly, according to FEMA’s website, although warnings with new information on the same storm will be transmitted.

Alerts will be sent every five minutes until a warning has expired, so people who travel into a threatened area after a warning has been issued will be alerted to the danger.

Among the alerts consumers will receive:

  • Extreme weather warnings
  • Local emergencies requiring evacuation or immediate action
  • AMBER warnings for missing children
  • Presidential Alerts during a national emergency

Weather service warnings could include tsunamis, tornadoes and flash flood warnings, hurricanes, typhoon, dust storms, blizzard and ice storm warnings.

In the past, the Weather Service depended on radio and television alerts, but it’s becoming more sophisticated as it embraces social media to get the word out. WEA alerts are broadcast from area cell towers to mobile devices in the area.

The new system has a huge advantage over the traditional ways of sending out alarms and the potential to warn many more people in danger zones and help prevent the loss of life and damage from a sudden and abrupt weather emergency.