For Christopher Lower of Minneapolis, severe-weather alerts via his smartphone are a matter of life or death.
Lower, who is on a waiting list for a heart transplant, keeps his current ticker going with medical equipment requiring power. He has set a weather app on his smartphone to send him a text and beep loudly when a major storm is headed his way so he can switch his life-preserving medical gear to battery power and not be affected by electrical outages.
Soon, Lower will have another means to receive "imminent threat" alerts, courtesy of the federal government and his wireless carrier -- and this alert system will require no fiddling with apps and text-message settings.
Everyone will receive the "wireless emergency alerts" automatically, provided they have a newer smartphone or an older one with an up-to-date operating system. The WEA system is rolling out in Minnesota this week via the National Weather Service and Department of Homeland Security.
This nationwide mobile-alert system won't only transmit severe-weather alerts. Phone users also will get an Ambert Alert if a child goes missing. If the United States faces a nationwide crisis of some sort, the president can transmit a mobile alert that pops up automatically on phones across the country.
Certain other alerts would originate at the Minnesota Department of Public Safety instead of the local National Weather Service office. These might include info about hazardous material spills and other emergencies not tied to weather, said Kris Eide, the public safety agency's director of homeland security and emergency management.
This mobile alert system is designed to flag handset users based on their current locations -- not where they live or work. Someone who lives in St. Paul but is visiting Cincinnati would receive the same alerts residents of that city receive.
"What the system does is actually follow you around wherever you are going," based on users' proximity to cellular towers, said Todd Krause, the weather-warning coordinator at the National Weather Service's office in Chanhassen.
It is better than an emergency siren going off, Krause added, since it will provide specifics about an emergency and allow recipients to take the relevant action immediately instead of scrambling to decipher why that alert siren sounded.
All the top U.S. wireless carriers are cooperating with the federal government to make the alerts available on their newer handsets or older models with operating system upgrades.
This all but guarantees that a majority of smartphone users will be able to receive these alerts in the coming years as older, incompatible devices fade from the scene.
"With the ascendancy of mobile devices that have all of us connected 24-7, this makes sense," said Paul Douglas, a Twin Cities meteorologist and founder of several weather-centric technology companies. "Everyone seems to have a smartphone."
Besides, Douglas said, people often don't take lifesaving action until they're encouraged to do so by multiple means. They might ignore a siren or a TV-screen crawl but may do more with more information.
The new warning system "is not a silver bullet," Douglas noted, "but it is a lot of silver buckshot."
The new 90-character-or-less alerts resemble regular texts but are a different form of messaging that includes a distinctive ringtone and also makes a device vibrate.
Since they are not standard texts, they do not get caught up in the inevitable cellular congestion when an emergency erupts, the Department of Homeland Security claims. The alerts do not pre-empt voice calls in progress.
Smartphone users can choose not to receive Amber and weather alerts -- though public-safety officials urge them not to do the latter for their own protection -- but can't block presidential alerts.
Lower has set up an alert system much like the one the federal government now is deploying. The weather app on his Android phone, WeatherBug, also is capable of sending him alerts specific to his location. These alerts pop up on the handset in the form of standard texts, and he has cranked up the volume on the device so he'll always know when an alert comes in.
He even keeps the smartphone at his bedside while he's sleeping -- and it has jolted him awake on more than one occasion.
Not every smartphone user will have an incentive and the time and patience to configure such a weather-alert system, though, so Lower hails the new and automated alert system as a boon for his fellow phone junkies.
"I'm very excited about any new kind of alert system," he said.
Julio Ojeda-Zapata writes about consumer technology. Read him: twincities.com/techtestdrive and yourtechweblog.com. Reach him: email@example.com or 651-228-5467. Follow him: ojezap.com/social
Get details about the federal government's mobile-alert system via the following resource sites:
-- The Federal Emergency Management Agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, is in charge of the alert system. Get the scoop (warning: acronym overload) at: bitly.com/LGHmp7
-- Wondering if your handset will work with the alert system in its present form, or with an update? The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association has basics with links: bitly.com/NiE75H
-- Most of the federal mobile-phone alerts will be Wireless Emergency Alerts. Exactly what kind of WEA alerts will the National Weather Service send out? Details: bitly.com/MB21MG
-- The federal government has put together a colorful, informative flyer that spells out all the basics about the new alert system. Download it and pass it on to other phone users: bitly.com/PKcCFo(6.24.2012, twincities.com) www.twincities.com/ci_20931233/smartphones-now-set-up-automatic-alert-system-weather
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