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A new text message emergency alert system has already proven its worth during the rare “derecho” storms that swept across the East Coast in late July.

Barely into its first few weeks of service, the new CMAS alerts flashed on cell phones in the Elmira, New York area almost instantly after the National Weather Service issuing a tornado warning.  Despite the fact that the area rarely experiences tornadoes, subscribers told the weather service that they took cover immediately.

 “Your warning of a tornado imminent in my area of New York, sent 7/26/12 via text message to my cell, was invaluable! From the bottom of my heart- THANK YOU National Weather Service!”one woman wrote on her Facebook page.

Delivered over cell phones and other mobile devices, these alerts and warnings are free and targeted to specific locales.  Consumers don’t need to sign up.  They just need is a handset capable of receiving the emergency alerts and a carrier who voluntarily provides the service.  Ask your carrier if they provide the service and whether your handset is CMAS-capable.

CMAS stands for Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) and the alerts that it issues are commonly known as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). Consumers should look for CMAS-compatible handsets or check whether they already have one. Many handsets were made to be compatible with CMAS well before the service was actually launched on April 7, 2012. 

CMAS allows consumers to receive emergency alerts issued by Federal, state, tribal, territorial or local government agencies.  Unlike other wireless alerting systems that deliver alerts based on subscriber billing information or zip code, CMAS delivers alerts to subscribers who are located within the targeted area of the alert.  Thus, for example, if a subscriber resides in Washington, D.C., but is visiting New York City, he or she will receive a CMAS alert targeted to New York City.  This feature allows government agencies to send alerts not only to subscribers who reside within the targeted area, but also those who may be visiting that area.

CMAS is a public-private partnership between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the wireless industry.  The program was established pursuant to the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act, which required the FCC to adopt rules allowing commercial wireless carriers to send emergency alerts to their subscribers.  Wireless carrier participation in CMAS is voluntary.  Carriers may choose to offer CMAS to subscribers within their entire service area, within portions of their service area, or not at all.  CMAS is part of FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), a system that will allow consumers to receive emergency alerts over multiple communications platforms, including radio, television, cell phones and the Internet.

Although over 40 government agencies nationwide have signed up to send alerts to CMAS, NOAA’s NWS is currently issuing most of the CMAS alerts that have been sent thus far. 

Here is additional information about CMAS:

«     Free service. There is no charge to subscribers for receiving CMAS alerts or for government agencies to send alerts over CMAS.  Government agencies, however, must sign up to use IPAWS in order to send alerts over CMAS.  For further information on IPAWS, click [http://www.fema.gov/integrated-public-alert-and-warning-system]

«     Short, basic information.  CMAS alerts are only 90-characters in length and are designed to provide essential information about the imminent emergency.  As a result, CMAS is designed to complement other types of alerting systems such as the Emergency Alert System.

«     Appears like a text on the cell phone screen.  CMAS alerts appear like text messages, but have a unique sound signal and vibration designed to get your attention.

«     Only used for the most imminent and important emergencies.  CMAS can be used for only three types of alerts:  (1) alerts issued by the President; (2) imminent threat alerts – alerts that include severe man-made or natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, etc; and (3) Amber Alerts.  In the case of imminent threat alerts -- CMAS can be used only to warn of the most severe types of emergencies where there is an urgent need for the public to take responsive action.  As a result, the CMAS has been designed to mitigate “over alerting” the public.

«     Will not interrupt on ongoing phone call or downloads in progress.  The CMAS alert will appear when you end your call or session.

«     Cannot identify your phone number or location.  CMAS cannot be used to track subscribers’ location or cell phone usage.

«     CMAS is not offered by all wireless carriers and is not available on all cell phones.  To receive a CMAS alert, your carrier must participate in CMAS in your area and your cell phone must be CMAS-capable.  Some carriers, but not others, are participating in CMAS.  In addition, some participating carriers are offering CMAS in some, but not all, of their service areas and on some of their cell phone handsets, but not others.  Contact your carrier to find out if it participates in CMAS in your service area and if your cell phone is CMAS-capable.

Want more information?  Check out:

FCC’s Consumer Factsheet https://transition.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/cmas.pdf

FEMA’s CMAS Page http://www.fema.gov/emergency/ipaws/cmas.shtm

NOAA’s CMAS page http://www.nws.noaa.gov/com/weatherreadynation/wea.html

CTIA – The Wireless Association®’s WEA website at http://www.ctia.org/consumer_info/safety/index.cfm/AID/12082