Here’s What’s Up With All Those ‘Emergency Alert’ Texts

| December 15, 2011 2:47 PM

Emergency text message alerts were received across the city Thursday. Above are texts received on a MetroFocus employee's phone. MetroFocus/Georgia Kral

Did you get one or more text messages from the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) today?

If the answer is yes, you have a Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile or Sprint phone that’s enabled with software that allows the government to send you text messages during emergencies.

Here’s everything you need to know about these texts:

Q: Why am I receiving these alerts?

A: The city and federal emergency management agencies are performing a Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) test of the Personal Localized Alerting Network, a federally mandated program that will be instated across the country by April 12, 2012. New York City is one of two pilot cities (the other is Washington, D.C.) involved, and on Jan. 1, the pilot program will begin.

The test Thursday, according to Chris Gilbride, a spokesperson for the city’s Office of Emergency Management, was “to ensure that the system is up and running by Jan. 1.”

It was intended for a group of trained volunteers, but if you have a new phone through one of the four carriers, you may have gotten one of the alerts. One MetroFocus employee received eight texts messages from the Office of Emergency Management, and several Twitter users in the area expressed annoyance over the texts.

Gilbride said some of the carriers have already begun selling the enabled phones in order to be ready by April 12, but just how many was unclear.

Q: What type of alerts will I get?

A: Mobile users will receive three types of alerts: alerts issued by the U.S. president; alerts involving imminent threats to safety or property; and AMBER alerts, which are missing children bulletins.

Q: Which cell phones will receive the messages?

A: All Wireless Emergency Alert-equipped phones (i.e. new phones) which are on the Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile or Sprint networks in New York City will receive the alerts starting Jan. 1. Moving forward, all phones sold by the four carriers will be equipped with the capability.

Q: Can I opt out of getting the messages?

A: Wireless customers might be able to block all emergency texts except for the presidential alerts. The decision as to whether users can block the other alerts will be left up to the wireless carrier.

Q: Do I have to pay for the alerts?

A: The alerts are delivered free of charge and will not add to your monthly text message total.

Q: How does it work?

A: The Office of Emergency Management crafts the alerts, then sends them to a FEMA aggregator, which from there disperses the alerts to the wireless carriers. This all happens almost instantly.

Q: I already get alerts about traffic jams and alternate side parking. Is this the same?

A: These alerts are not to be confused with those that come through NotifyNYC, which can be opted into and are delivered at a much greater frequency.

Q: How did this come to be?

A: In 2006, Congress passed the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act [PDF], which requires the FCC to adopt rules allowing wireless carriers to transmit emergency alerts to their subscribers. The FCC rules said this must begin by April, 2012.

Q: Didn’t I hear something about this happening in New Jersey?

A: Earlier this week, Verizon mistakenly sent out an alert to customers in New Jersey about a “civil emergency” urging them to take shelter, but omitted the fact that the notification was just a test. Oops.

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