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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

AMBER Alerts On Your Mobile Device: What's New?


You may have already experienced this if you live in one of the areas that has activated an AMBER Alert in January 2013. Mobile Device users now receive these emergency alerts based on geographical location, not “opt-in” settings.

Child Quest International introduced this new emergency alert program back in May 2012. Previously, using the old wirless AMBER Alert program, if someone wanted to receive AMBER Alerts issued in their zip code, they had to sign up to receive it. A new FEMA system now provides Amber Alert messages to most cell phones automatically.  

The new nationwide alert system now uses cell phone towers to send emergency text messages to people in specific locations. 

Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), is a national emergency alert system to send concise, text-like messages to users’ WEA-capable mobile devices started in April 2012. Wireless providers representing nearly 97% of cellular subscribers are participating in distributing wireless emergency alerts from federal, state, local, and tribal government agencies about imminent threats to safety, including severe weather events and missing children. 

As of January 1, 2013, this alert system replaces the previous, sign up based, wireless AMBER Alert program.

Only public safety entities can issue the alerts, which fall into three categories:
  • Presidential Alerts – Alerts issued by the President or a designee;
  • Imminent Threat Alerts – Alerts that include severe man-made or natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc., where an imminent threat to life or property exists; and
  • AMBER Alerts – Alerts that meet the U.S. Department of Justice’s criteria to help law enforcement search for and locate an abducted child.

While these alerts will appear on a person’s mobile device similar to a text message, Wireless Emergency Alerts are not text messages. Instead, Wireless Emergency Alerts use a different kind of technology to ensure they are delivered immediately and are not subjected to potential congestion (or delays) on wireless networks.

In addition, Wireless Emergency Alerts are a point-to-multipoint system, which means alert messages will be sent to those within a targeted area. The alerts are location-specific and will be sent to people who have “WEA-capable” devices in the affected areas, unlike text messages which are not location based. For example, if a person with a WEA-capable device from Washington, D.C. happened to be in southern California when an earthquake occurred in that area, they would receive an “Imminent Threat Alert” on their device without signing up or registering for them.  The user will receive the alert on their device simply because they are in the targeted area.

"The ability for people to be made aware of AMBER Alerts and potentially aid in the safe recovery of a missing child is going to expand exponentially." says Anthony Gonzalez, Director of Programs & Communications for Child Quest International, a nonprofit for missing children.

The alerts will have a “unique audible signal and vibration cadence to emphasize its important,” according the wireless association CTIA’s FAQ on the program. The messages will be no more than 90 characters in length, and include: an alert icon, info on who is sending the alert, what is happening, who is affected, and what action to take.

"Other benefits are that you don't need to have an app for it, sign-up for location based services, or pay for any additional fees.” According to Gonzalez, “This local alert capability is built into the phones technology and can be utilized anywhere your device gets a signal." 

Though all the major cell phone providers are all taking part in the alert system, they currently have a limited number of phones that are equipped to retrieve the alerts. That will change as new phones emerge with the built-in technology.

There are a number of WEA-capable devices available today, and many of the new phones that are sold from participating carriers will be able to transmit these alerts. If your device has the CTIA Wireless Emergency Alerts logo, then it is WEA-capable. To receive these alerts, you might need to only upgrade your device’s software, rather than purchase a new one. 

Mobile users will NOT be charged for receiving these text-like alerts and are automatically enrolled to receive them. Consumers can opt out of Imminent Threat alerts and AMBER alerts, but they cannot opt-out of Presidential Alerts. To confirm Wireless Emergency Alerts are available in your area and your device is capable of receiving the alerts, please check with your carrier. 

Amber Alerts save lives.
Since they began, 656 children have been found with Amber Alerts. (Dated 7/19/2013)


The latest information on compatible phones is available here.

More information on active AMBER Alerts is available here.

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