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Wireless Emergency Alerts: Legit service or spreading fear and panic?

Learn about Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) and how to disable them on your mobile device.

Before I really dig into Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), I need to disclose that my level of anxiety has definitely increased with age. I didn't used to be scared of flying on airplanes, heights, or tornadoes, but over the past few years, these fears have instigated full-fledged panic attacks.

So, when I received a WEA on my Motorola Droid Razr yesterday, warning me about a possible flood in my area, you'd think that I'd be grateful -- you know, so that I'd have time to batten down the hatches, build an arc, and double-check my living will. Well, I wasn't. In fact, after I received the second flood warning, I spent the next half hour trying to figure out where the heck these alerts were coming from and how they could be disabled!

What are Wireless Emergency Alerts?

According to a recent post on eWeek:

"The Federal Emergency Management Agency and wireless carriers are rolling out emergency alerts, called the Wireless Emergency Alert, or WEA, system, via text-like messages on mobile phones to allow federal, state and local governments to issue critical alerts....

"WEA is also referred to as Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), which the FCC initiated in 2006 under the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act. The FCC set April 2012 as the deadline for carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon Wireless) to begin sending the alerts."

Verizon started Wireless Emergency Alerts on April 7, 2012. They have a handy FAQ page that gives all the details, but here's the skinny version:

"Wireless Emergency Alerts are free wireless notifications that are delivered to your mobile device (currently, this includes only a select number of capable devices, like the Droid Razr) as part of a new public safety system provided by Authorized Senders. They are designed to inform you of imminent threats to safety (such as severe weather) or missing persons (AMBER Alerts) in your area."

These alerts don't sound like your typical text message. They have a distinct repetitive tone that's accompanied by a vibration. This alone succeeds in alerting you, because you're wondering what the heck is going on with your phone! When you receive the message -- which, by the way, you will receive, even if you have an SMS Block feature enabled, because WEA alerts don't travel over SMS -- it tells you information about the alert category, event type, response, severity, and urgency.

Honestly, the flood alerts I received yesterday freaked me out, and I'm not even scared of heavy rain... yet. I checked the local radar map, and I didn't see anything significant for the 6-hour forecast in my area. Relax. False call. An hour later, when I heard that same beeping sequence and vibration, I knew I had to disable the WEA feature. It might work for you, but it certainly doesn't work for me (without a Xanax).

How do you disable Wireless Emergency Alerts?

Here are the steps to disable WEA on a Droid Razr. Please note that the directions may vary for different carriers and mobile devices. Also, you can not disable the Presidential Alerts, which provides news of national authority concern. Let's hope we never receive one of these!

  1. From your home screen, press the Apps icon
  2. Select Emergency Alerts
  3. Tap the settings icon
  4. Deselect all of the options (except the Presidential Alert, which is mandatory)

What are your thoughts about WEA? Do you appreciate the extra warning, or would you prefer the choice of voluntarily signing up? Please share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.

About

Sonja Thompson has worked for TechRepublic since October of 1999. She is currently a Senior Editor and the host of the Smartphones and Tablets blogs.

23 comments
inet32
inet32

These things will cause car accidents or other accidents as they startle people who are trying to concentrate on driving or some other task.

tutor4pc
tutor4pc

On my phone I use FOX Weather service. They give me all kinds of alerts, like flash floods, thunderstorms, and rip tides. Nothing is ever true or of importance. I believe the flood warnings are a scheme by the insurance companies to sell their "service". FEMA is cosy with the insurances and publishes "facts" that are as far from the truth as the moon is from me. I challenged FEMA to show me a picture of a flood in our area in the last 30 years. Nothing. Let's stop this fear mongering. We can handle what comes our way.

ceichler
ceichler

Had indentical situation occur. In Southern Ohio last Saturday. Drove back to Northern Ohio Saturday night. Sunday afternooon I receive a howling WEA for a NWS Tornado warning for where? Southern Ohio.

jcbronson
jcbronson

"...you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn't be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense." "You designed it, Sir! You wanted it foolproof. You told me every television in London." Sorry - this spun through my head the entire time I read the article and discussion. Thanks for posting this Sonja.

mail
mail

I am in broadcasting. What this is all about is the newest form of EAS. Emergency Alert System...Yes that annoying thing that your radio and TV stations have put out. The main part of the system is to let the president talk to as many citizens as possible if the country is being attacked or the world is ending. So broadcasters didn't just install equipment that they might not use except once, and to make sure it would work when needed, state, local and the weather service were allowed to send out local warnings..ie the flood warnings. Since people are moving away from radio and TV more and more, the new form added the cell phones as receivers. In broadcasting, we can select what types of warning we get and for what local areas we want. To meet the required deadlines, obviously the phone providers and makers just turned it on. As with broadcasting equipment, software updates will probably fix the general nature problem. Ask anyone from Florida or Joplin, Mo would they turn it all off.

Dyalect
Dyalect

And can be broad casted much easier. Relying on a service to your phone is scary. I've only got 1 bar right now. MERP.

Mattman10987
Mattman10987

I had already disabled all of the alerts that I am able to yet I received a Presidential message about a tornado warning in my area. I was led to believe that these would be alerts of national importance, not local. Sure, a tornado warning is important but this was clearly a local phenomenon...and all it did was make me really paranoid. It did get my attention, and I immediately went to the Weather Channel, NOAA, etc, but nothing happened despite all the chatter. If my power and/or Internet had been out (which happens a dozen times a year anyway, I live in the middle of the woods) I would have spent the next hour hiding in the basement for no good reason. Information is good but my Droid barking at me to "take shelter right now or else" just makes it more likely that this will become the phone that cried wolf and I will end up ignoring it entirely.

TNT
TNT

When it comes to government programs especially, the default should be to require people to opt in, not out.

dustybear1
dustybear1

The story reminds me of a childhood fable, with the moral being defined, "The sky is falling, The sky is falling!"

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

employed techs who are part of the TR community see this article. However, I can see how the system can be very useful if anyone bothered to set it up right. Sadly, you can bet that because it's set up by bureaucrats it's a total stuff up. The problem is they need to localise the alerts a lot more than they appear to do, and they should enable you to set up your localised area or areas based on the knowledge of the local situations. What I mean with that is for people in tornado alley they need to have a different sized alert area and alert criteria for tornadoes than they have for floods or fires. You need to be able to set up the size of the alert to suit each local area - local being defined as about a five mile radius up to a fifty mile radius, dependent upon the item of danger and past local activity. An example of what I mean is the nearest city to where I live in rural New South Wales, Australia. Wagga Wagga is a fair sized city sitting on a major river, heavy rain upstream can cause floods in this area as there is a very extensive flood plain on one side of the city. When a local flood alert goes out is goes to everyone in the city plus for about fifteen kilometres around the city. All well and good, except that only about 5% of the city can be directly affected by a flood - I say directly as a flood that gets over the levee invades most of the business area and makes a shopping a boating experience if anyone opens up, and about 98% of the area flooded in most floods is the less well protected grazing lands on the other side of the river to the city. In short, about thirty or so farmers need to move stock and about 2% of residents need to move and about 40% of business have issues if the flood gets into the city. So, do the majority of the people need minute by minute flood alerts, no, but a system like WEA will give everyone the alerts. What I suggest is you should be able to set the degree of danger etc based on your personal circumstance. In Marks example, those near the water courses that carry the water from the next county need to be alerted, but the people on the side of his county away from the water courses don't need it. Personally, I'm glad we don't have it - but then, I don't read or answer any SMS messages as I tell everyone my phone is for calling me, not sending a message in the hopes you got the right number.

Jeff_D_Programmer
Jeff_D_Programmer

And just what, may I ask, is a "Presidential Alert" - and why is it [i]mandatory[/i]?

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

I don't get the WEA alerts on my phone yet, but I do get weather alerts via a local TV station. I got the Flash Flood Warnings yesterday and I also was puzzled since it was not raining and had not rained all day. Turns out the county next door had a small, but potent storm raining cats and dogs on them all day. That county has two notorious streams that flood often, so I understood why the alert was issued. The strange thing about the WEA is that the default is to opt you in to all rather than giving you the opportunity to pick and choose.

deb
deb

Like so many other technologies, it's neither good nor bad - it all depends on how it's used. In this case I think it's a good idea that's being badly implemented. Our society has gotten "alert happy" over the past decade or two. We don't have any more or fewer tornadoes in my area (where I've lived all my life) than we did ten or twenty years ago, but now every time there's just a watch, the news folks treat it as if a double F-5 were on the ground and headed straight for downtown. Sensationalism is the name of the game and inducing panic is good for ratings/business AND an effective political tactic - but we won't get into that. IF it were reserved for real, confirmed emergency situations rather than every single "just in case" situation, I think it would be a very useful feature. The idea of not being able to turn off the president (no matter who the president is) makes me uneasy, though. What's the next step in that progression?

inet32
inet32

"The main part of the system is to let the president talk to as many citizens as possible if the country is being attacked or the world is ending." If we were being attacked or the world was ending the President (regardless of what party) would be at the BOTTOM of the list of people I'd want to hear from! We're becoming more like a police state every year.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

their MP Player, iPhone, and iPad for their personal music instead and all their news comes from the TwitFaceYammer system.

zyzygy
zyzygy

There was a fire in a transformer-oil recycling factory in Canberra a year or so ago, and they sent SMS messages to everyone in the area. Problem was that it was to the billing address of the registered phone owner. It also took quite a while to contact everyone. None the less "improvenments" were made.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

let you know he's coming into your area so you can practice your sniping or bombing skills?

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

how much you may want to. It does make me wonder just when this mandatory listen to the president came in. Update - just checked and found out this started April 2012 - so it seems the Democrats made this law and don't like you being able to turn their president off.

Mike R Lewis
Mike R Lewis

The next step in that progression would be an "If you see something, say something" message that keeps appearing and you can't turn off.

bboyd
bboyd

They get a little touchy about the topic. On topic, I'm glad to have an emergency service reporting to this path. I've seen enough tornadoes to appreciate the warnings.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

actions via your smart phone so you behave as the government wants you to.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

It's a good thing I'm a few thousand miles away from the USA, although I often wonder how I'd go if I ever visited the USA. I do know the CIA and a few other US agencies do have a a file or two on me, and I've never been to the USA, yet.