KC Currents
11:01 am
Wed May 29, 2013

New System Warns Cell Phone Users Of Tornadoes, Other Emergencies

People in the path of severe weather (and other emergencies) now have a new way to find out about threats: text message alerts, sent straight to mobile devices.

Susan Buchanan of the National Weather Service, one the federal organizations behind the alerts, said the new system was a response to the rapid development of mobile technology in recent years.

Cell phone alert for tornado warning in Lyon County, Kan. on May 19, 2013.
Cell phone alert for tornado warning in Lyon County, Kan. on May 19, 2013.
Credit Sylvia Maria Gross / KCUR

“It’s a recognition that a lot of people are using mobile technologies these days,” Buchanan says. “And people on the go need a way of accessing weather information.”

The mobile alerts were first implemented last summer as part of the Wireless Emergency Alerts initiative, a collaboration of the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service. They have since been rolled out at different times by the various wireless carriers, Buchanan says.

The National Weather Service issues mobile warnings regarding tornados, flash floods, hurricanes, extreme wind, blizzards, ice storms, tsunamis and dust storms. The messages have a unique tone, not pre-programmed into mobile devices, that is meant to catch the attention of the recipient. You don't need to sign up to receive the alerts – they will be sent based on the threats near the location of the mobile device, not where the device is registered.

The system will also be used to warn residents of other emergencies such as chemical spills and national security threats.

Buchanan stresses that the alerts are not meant to replace traditional methods of monitoring severe weather.

“People should still stay tuned to their local TV and radio, and also have a NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] radio in their house so they’ll be alerted immediately when the National Weather Service issues a warning,” she says.

With this new system comes the hope that it will help keep residents aware of real threats heading their way, Buchanan added. In the Midwest, tornado sirens are almost so routine that some stopped paying attention to them – at least, until the tornado in Joplin two years ago.

Buchanan says that the wireless carriers have all confirmed they relayed the National Weather Service’s tornado warnings in Oklahoma, before last week’s tornado devastated the city of Moore, Okla.

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents podcast.