Can You Hear Me Now? New FEMA Alerts Direct to Cell Phones

Jun 14, 2013, 11:06 AM

Millions of cell phone customers might have heard their phones let out a high pitched alarm and spontaneously shake yesterday afternoon. The mobile siren is an indication that the severe weather is threatening the area—and roughly 62 million Americans were in the path of severe weather along the East Coast yesterday, as the region was wracked with severe thunder storms, tornados and flooding.

The mobile shake, rattle and siren is a free service from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and many nationwide cell phone carriers. You can find out if you’re covered by pressing 6-1-1 on your cell phone, which is your carrier’s customer service line. Earlier this week a NewPublichealth reporter, unaware of the service, suddenly felt his phone shake and was alerted to potential life-threatening flooding along his commuting route.

The service is actually two years old, but to get consumers to pay attention to the alerts, and the threats they’re warning about, FEMA recently partnered with the Ad Council on a new public service announcement.

The specific warnings come through as text messages with no more than 90 characters. Categories of alerts include extreme weather, AMBER alerts indicating a child has been abducted, and Presidential alerts during a national emergency.

One of the best features of the service is that it automatically tunes to weather where you are, not where you’re from. Go on vacation to the Outer Banks of North Carolina from Missouri, for example, and you will get alerts, if needed, about whether out on the barrier island. That’s important. Gary Cox, health director of Oklahoma City, which recently saw devastating tornadoes that killed and injured scores of people, said among those killed and injured were travelers to the area who hadn’t tuned into weather forecasts and didn’t know to take cover.

>>Bonus Link: Read an FAQ from FEMA on the wireless alerts.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.