AMBER Alerts Joined Wireless Emergency Alert System on Cellphones Jan. 1

Users can only opt out of two of the three Wireless Emergency Alert categories. (Image: Shutterstock.com)

Have you recently received an emergency text message on your phone? If so, you might have wondered why you were receiving these messages when you never signed up for them in the first place. Depending on where you were, you might have also wondered how your cellphone received the appropriate local emergency alert while you were visiting Florida, when you regularly live in Ohio.

Turns out, you might be automatically signed up to receive AMBER Alerts, weather warnings and other emergency information in a text simply based on the type of phone you have.

Those in the San Antonio area a couple weeks ago, for example, might have received a wireless alert that police were on the lookout for an 11-month-old boy. The report by KXAN stated that the program sending cellphone users messages of warnings and threats was launched by the government last year. Shortly after issuing the text, the vehicle in which the child was last seen was found by authorities.

As for the text message program itself, it is run as the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system through the CTIA-The Wireless Association, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The alert system works automatically on WEA-enabled phones.

These are the types of alerts that would be sent out through the system:

  1. Presidential Alerts – Alerts issued by the President or a designee;
  2. Imminent Threat Alerts – Alerts that include severe man-made or natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc., where an imminent threat to life or property exists; and
  3. AMBER Alerts – Alerts that meet the U.S. Department of Justice’s criteria to help law enforcement search for and locate an abducted child.

Although appearing like a text message, the CTIA pointed out that the information delivered without charge is a little different:

While these alerts will appear on a person’s mobile device similar to a text message, Wireless Emergency Alerts are not text messages. Instead, Wireless Emergency Alerts use a different kind of technology to ensure they are delivered immediately and are not subjected to potential congestion (or delays) on wireless networks.

The program also allows for phones in a specific area to be targeted for messages. Here’s an example from CTIA:

For example, if a Chicago resident was visiting Boston and a WEA AMBER Alert was issued in Boston, the subscriber would receive the alert. At the same time, if an alert was issued in Chicago, the subscriber would not receive it while in Boston.

Even though it sends messages based on the phone’s location, KXAN reported that it’s a one-way communication so there is no tracking of the phone by the provider or the government.

AMBER Alerts joined the WEA system as of Jan. 1, 2013. Before this time, Amber Alert messages were ones users had to opt in to receive.

Those with WEA-system enabled phones can opt out of receiving AMBER alerts or imminent threat information, but according to CTIA per the WARN Act of 1996, no one can opt out of Presidential Alerts. In order to opt out of these two on a WEA-enabled device, users need to contact their wireless provider for instructions.

Watch CTIA’s video about the Wireless Emergency Alerts system:

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Featured image via Shutterstock.com.