Riddle me this, Batman!
When the National Weather Service threw the switch last week, enabling emergency alerts to be sent to mobile phones, there was much rejoicing in some emergency management circles, gnashing of teeth other places and a sense of bewilderment in the minds of the general public.
The real question consumers should be asking is "Will I now receive weather alerts on my cell phone?" Great question with an answer that has more variables, it seems, than a Powerball drawing.
To get to the answer, an individual needs to ask:
Who's my carrier?
Well over 150 mobile phone carriers have voluntarily enlisted in FEMA's Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) programs which sends Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs). That means they intend -- either immediately or down the road -- to send weather alerts and other emergency notifications to cell phones.
Where do I live?
The carriers have to program their respective networks to broadcast the alerts from cell towers and through routers and servers. Three of the larger carriers -- Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon -- say they've rolled out the capability throughout their domestic U.S. networks. AT&T is a little slower to the party, publicly acknowledging only three markets where it offers service -- New York City, Washington, D.C. and Portland, OR -- although scuttlebutt has it that it is busy equipping its network in other places. The smaller carriers are a mixed bag, some serving their entire service areas, while others are just getting started.
What phone do I use?
Each carrier has different arrangements with companies that make phones for them, so realistically, only your carrier can tell you if your phone is enabled for the alerts. Most newer phones on the market will be WEA-enabled, but older models, not so much. "Well," you say, "I just yesterday bought the iPhone 4s brand new from Verizon and I live in NYC! I'm covered!" Wrong. While Verizon is participating in WEA and NYC is certainly covered by its network, Apple iPhones and many other models are not yet WEA-enabled. Apple has unveiled that its new ios 6 software package, expected this fall, will support WEAs. But, it hasn't said if all models of the iPhone will be covered. Bottom line, ask your carrier if your phone is capable.
While there's great potential for ubiquitous coverage for emergency alerts from the weather service and elsewhere, it doesn't exist quite yet. So to be sure you'll get the alerts, start asking questions.
All the best,