Last week while I was drafting a brief in my office, I heard a tone coming from my iPhone that I had never heard before. In fact, at first I didn't think that my iPhone was the source of the noise; I thought it was some alarm tone broadcast over the emergency speaker system in my office building. It turns out that it was a Wireless Emergency Alert for a flash flood in my area. Here are the details on Wireless Emergency Alerts so that if you hear one on your iPhone you will know what is going on. I'll start by explaining what they are, and then I'll discuss how they are implemented on the iPhone and how you can manage them.
The WARN Act and WEA
Title VI of PL 109-347 (Oct. 13, 2006) is titled the Warning Alert and Response Network Act, sometimes called the WARN Act. The WARN Act, in 47 U.S.C. § 1201, gives the FCC the authority to adopt standards for cell phone companies to transmit emergency alerts. Participation by cell phone companies is voluntary — they don't have to participate — but if they do, the law states that cell phone companies may not impose an additional charge for such alerts. 47 U.S.C. § 1201(b)(2)(C).
Pursuant to the WARN Act, the FCC worked with FEMA to create a program called Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). The system was based on the existing Emergency Alert System (EAS), which are the warnings that you get on a television and radio when there is a weather or other emergency.
Alerts are sent to cell towers providing wireless service to a target geographical area, and then all WEA-capable phones using those cell towers receive the alert. Thus, you will receive an alert if you are in a targeted area even if you are just visiting that area.
WEA delivers only three types of alerts:
1. Emergency Alerts. These are alerts issued because of an imminent threat to public safety or life, such as evacuation orders or shelter in place orders due to severe weather, a terrorist threat or chemical spill. For example, the National Weather Service says that it sends WEA alerts for tsunami warnings, tornado and flash flood warnings, hurricane, typhoon, dust storm and extreme wind warnings and blizzard and ice storm warnings. The way it works is that a pre-authorized national, state or local government agency sends an emergency alert to FEMA, which then sends the alert to the participating cell phone companies, each of which then sends the alert to WEA capable phones in the zone of emergency.
2. AMBER Alerts. AMBER officially stands for America's Missing: Broadcasting Emergency Response, but that is a backronym as the system was really named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl who was abducted in 1996 while riding her bicycle in Arlington, TX and was subsequently murdered. The killer was never identified. The incident, and others like it, led to the AMBER Alert system, a method by which police officers may quickly publicize information when a child age 17 or younger is abducted such as the name and description of the child, a description of the suspected abductor, a description and license plate of the abductor's vehicle, etc. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 158 AMBER Alerts involving 197 children were issued in the U.S. in 2011. 144 of those children were eventually found, and AMBER Alerts played a role in 28 of those cases. The original AMBER Alert system was opt-in only, and sent a text message based on a cell phone owner's pre-defined geographical location regardless of where a cell phone was actually located when the alert was issued. That system was retired on December 31, 2012 to be replaced by the new, improved WEA system.
3. Presidential Alerts. I am not aware of any official standards for when the President will issue a WEA Presidential Alert. No president has ever issued a Presidential Alert under WEA or similar prior systems (and hopefully, no president will ever have a need to do so). The WARN Act provides in 47 U.S.C. § 1201(b)(2)(E) that while cell phone users may opt-out of emergency alerts and AMBER Alerts, a user may not opt-out of Presidential Alerts.
WEA capable devices are designed to reject duplicate alerts, so you should receive each alert only once. However, subsequent alerts may be issued that contain information similar to a prior alert. You might not receive an alert at all if you are on the phone. The AT&T website says that you might not receive an alert if "your device was in an active voice call or data session during the time period that the Wireless Emergency Alert was broadcast." And the Verizon website says that "if you are engaged in a voice or data session when alerts are released, you will not receive the alert. Alerts may be re-broadcast at specific intervals in the targeted geographic locations, in order to reach as many devices as possible. However, after that interval has concluded, or the alerts have been superseded, the original alert will no longer be released."
AT&T just turned on the WEA system for iPhones in June of 2013, which is why I had not heard one before last week. AT&T did so by pushing software updates to iPhones starting on June 14, 2013. To receive the update you had to be using an iPhone 4S or iPhone 5 running iOS 6.1 or later. (I believe that if you sync your iPhone with iTunes on a computer, you might be able to receive the AT&T update even if your device doesn't quite meet those specifications.) After the update was installed last month, if you were paying attention, you saw an alert that said: "Carrier Settings Update: new settings required for your device have been installed." I understand that Verizon and Sprint enabled WEA for iPhones in 2012. I don't believe that T-Mobile has enabled WEA for iPhones yet.
WEA on the iPhone
If your iPhone supports WEA and the carrier has turned it on for your phone, then the default setting is that you receive all three types of alerts. When an alert comes in, you will hear a tone and see a message on the screen.
As noted above, when I first heard the sound last week, it was a tone that I had never heard before from my iPhone so it caught me by surprise. The following YouTube video shows a WEA alert triggered by a hack on an iPhone and a Samsung Galaxy G3. I'm fairly certain that this is the same sound that I heard:
The tone only sounds if your ringer/silent switch is in the "up" position. With the ringer switched off, the phone just vibrates when you get an alert. This is yet another reason to keep your iPhone in silent mode when you are in court; your judge might not be happy that you disrupted the proceedings because there was a flash flood alert.
The message itself looks like a text message but it actually is not. A different technology called Cell Broadcast is used to send the alerts, which is important because after a disaster, cell phone service can get highly congested which can result in delays for text messages. This also means that you can receive alerts even if you have text messaging turned off. I didn't take a screen shot of my iPhone last week when I received an emergency alert, but here is one that I found in the MacRumors forum that shows you what a WEA alert looks like:
Even after you dismiss the alert, you can still see it in the Notifications Center. Here is the alert that I saw last week:
While all three WEA alerts are turned on by default, you can turn off two of them if you want to do so. Open the Settings app and go to Notifications and then scroll all the way down to the bottom. You will see switches that let you turn off AMBER Alerts and/or Emergency Alerts. As noted above, the WARN Act prohibits turning off Presidential Alerts, so there is no option for that.
Although WEA alerts are based on your location, you do not need to have Location Services on the iPhone turned on to receive alerts. Your iPhone's GPS radio is irrelevant to the WEA system. As noted above, alerts are issued based upon your location as determined by cell towers.
After the flash flood alert went to iPhone users in downtown New Orleans last week, I spoke with many New Orleans attorneys who were annoyed with the alert because it caught them by surprise. Having said that, I think that the main problem was a lack of prior knowledge; I myself wasn't fully aware how this system worked until I researched this post. My guess is that once people understand why these alerts are sent and understand that they have the ability to manage them, most folks will appreciate the value of the WARN Act and the WEA system.