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A look at what's behind the automated weather alerts sent to your phone

Kinks need to be worked out in new system

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CINCINNATI -- It wasn't difficult to notice the severe storms that ripped through most of the Tri-State on Halloween night. Rain pelted rooftops and wind rattled entire structures into the early hours of Nov. 1.

But while Mother Nature was straightforward with her attempts to notify the region of what was happening, the technology used in many mobile devices muddled the message some people received.

The confusion stemmed from the weather warnings that were issued to many cellphones through the Wireless Emergency Alert System (WEA). The WEA issued a Tornado Warning for counties north of Dayton, but cities in the Cincinnati metro areas received the warning even though they were not included in the warning.

While officials associated with the alert program say cellphone tower coverage can overlap, causing areas surrounding the warning area to receive notifications, cities more than 50 miles away outside the Warning area, including Fort Thomas and Independence in Kentucky, reported problems.

So, what happened?'

9 On Your Side spoke with the National Weather Service in Wilmington, where the alert process begins, to better understand the alert process.

“When we issue a Warning, it goes through our communication systems and goes out through all the methods that we have. It also goes through the system that produces the wireless emergency alerts,” according to Mary Jo Parker, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Wilmington

That alert is then sent directly to cellphones by using cell service towers in the warned area. 

“The Wireless Alert Network is a voluntary network that the cellphone providers can volunteer to send text messages to your phone if you’re within a certain area that needs to be warned,” according to Bary Lusby, the Operations Manager at the Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency

9 On Your Side contacted the five major cell service providers in the Tri-State and found out they all participate in the WEA system.

One of those providers is Cincinnati Bell, whose product manager, David Kidwell, discussed how the process works on their end.

“We have a catalog of every tower on our network and we send that to FEMA and so when there’s a Wireless Emergency Alert for a specific area, we will broadcast that out to the towers affected in that area,” he said.

A spokesperson for Sprint released the following message:

We’re still investigating, but according to our records, our alerting system is not sending the Wireless Emergency Alerts beyond the directly impacted areas of Ohio," wrote Crystal Davis. "Based on our initial assessment, there might be a possible latitude and longitude issue with some of our cell towers in Kentucky because this is the only state we’re experiencing this situation."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, is one of the primary players in determining who can send and receive Wireless Emergency Alerts.

Dan Watson, FEMA's press secretary, used a few facts to provide a breakdown of the process:

  • The Wireless Emergency Alert system is voluntary for cell carriers
  • FEMA authorizes who can send alerts ahead of time (NWS, EMA, etc.)
  • The one requirement for carriers is to target at least to the county level
  • It’s a cooperative program and not mandatory
  • Most cell service carriers are on board with WEA
  • Cell phone users need to check with their carriers to see if their phone is WEA capable
  • Many newer cell phones come with WEA installed
  • It’s a free service that is of no charge to the cell phone user.
  • WEA has been used in many emergencies including tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma, the Boston Marathon bombings, and Amber alerts.
  • Each carrier disseminates the information differently

While there's a process in place to ensure the people receiving the alerts are those who actually need them, Lusby admitted that the technology behind the alert system is new and there are still "kinks" to work out.

“Because it’s a new system, there are still some kinks to be worked out. And not all of the providers are on board, so it’s possible that you could have two phones and one will receive the message and one will not,” he said.

Kidwell said while the technology is improving every day, it’s important that cellphone users make sure their phone settings are correct. He also said that's the most important part of ensuring you're receiving the correct Wireless Emergency Alerts.

You do have the option to opt out of the Amber Alerts or weather warnings, while the presidential alerts (alerts sent by the president) will remain active.

The best thing to do though, Kidwell advised, is to keep the government alerts active and verify the information that comes down on the alert. You want to compare the information with an app, such as our Storm Shield Weather Radio app, to make sure the alert applies to your area.

Storm Shield is more specific to your actual location because its alerts are based off of a combination of GPS, cellular, and WiFi signals.

So, as an example, if the National Weather Service issued a Tornado Warning, it would show up next to your “current location” in the Storm Shield app with information on where the warning was issued and how long it’s in effect.

You also have live, interactive radar in the Storm Shield app, to track any severe storms in your area. You can get the Storm Shield Weather Radio app for your smartphone or tablet by going to the iTunes store or Google Play store. 

Get more information about Storm Shield here: http://www.wcpo.com/weather/safety/9-news-introduces-severe-weather-radio-app-storm-shield-for-iphone

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Sarah Walters on Twitter: @Sarah_Walters

Copyright 2013 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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