Wireless Emergency Alerts: Forcing Cell Phones to Emit Loud Noises Across California
Did your cell phone produce an obscenely loud series of tones last night around 11:07? Did that same phone do it again this morning around 9:45?
If so, congratulations. You're phone is one amongst millions capable of receiving these notifications, which are transmitted to wireless phones across certain regions when emergency information needs to be disseminated to a large population quickly.
The alerts are part of a program known as the Wireless Emergency Alert system, which complements the traditional Emergency Alert System that runs through television and radio broadcasters. Both the WEA and the EAS are part of FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.
The alert(s) you received last night and possibly this morning are in response to a potential child abduction case that originated in San Diego County. The alert marks the inaugural run for the WEA system in California.
The San Diego County Sherriff's office believes James Lee DiMaggio, 40, may have killed 42-year-old Christina Anderson, and then abducted one or both of her children: 8-year-old Ethan Anderson, and 16-year-old Hannah Anderson. He is said to be driving a blue Nissan Versa with a California license plate, 6WCU986, according to authorities.
As the Federal Communications Commission puts it, the WEA system allows certain wireless phone models and other mobile devices "to receive-geographically targeted, text-like messages alerting them of imminent threats to safety in their area."
"Text-like" is an important part of the lexicon, as the system utilizes a technology that cellular carriers have implemented primarily for these alerts known as cell broadcast. The protocol avoids the pitfalls of text messaging, which is subject to delays both small and large when a network's towers are crowded with a large amount of text messages.
The alerts are broadcast nearly simultaneously to all of the WEA-capable phones within a specified geographic region. In the case of last night's alert, it went out to every cell phone in the state because the authorities have no specific details on where DiMaggio may be heading.
That means even tourists visiting California from other states had their phones alerted last night. In contrast, those with California area codes who were not in the state at the time of the alert did not receive it.
The messages are rather brief in scope, as they are limited to 90 characters, and usually only get sent out when there is a vehicle implicated in the alert, according to Bob Hoever, Director of Special Programs at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Last night's message was sent not only to cell phones, but to the electronic billboards across the state's highways, so it needed to be brief.
"The whole WEA system was designed as a trigger to get people to turn to media," Hoever says.
No specific numbers are available on how many people in California received the alert last night, says Brian Josef, the Assistant Vice President of Regulatory Affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association.
"We just don't know who has WEA capable phones in their hands in a particular area," Josef said.
However, at the time of CTIA's last count, there were well over 200 devices in the country that are WEA capable, and Josef added that more are being manufactured and marketed every week as the technology spreads. There is no federal mandate that requires carriers and cell phone manufacturers to include the capability in their phones, though a large and growing majority do.
The alerts originate from the law enforcement agency that wishes to send out an Amber Alert, and then that message is vetted by FEMA before being passed on to the carriers for broadcast.
The three categories of emergencies that will qualify for a wireless alert, which will send your cell phone into a brief frenzy are Presidential alerts, Imminent threats (a man-made or natural disaster that poses imminent threat to property or life), and AMBER alerts, as was the case last night.
Cell phone users can opt out of both Amber Alert messages and imminent threat alerts, but Congress decided with the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act in 1996 that users cannot block the presidential alerts, which have been a part of the EAS, and its predecessors, since its inception during the Cold War. A federal alert has yet to be issued in over 40 years, so you may just want to hear it on your phone if one is actually sent out.
The CTIA and the FCC recommend checking with your carrier to find out details about which of their phones has the WEA capability.
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