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East Coast Blizzard Another Test for FCC’s New Cellphone Alert System


Brooke Hammerling

Once again, those on the East Coast are getting a new kind of message on their cellphones alerting them to severe weather.

As was the case with Hurricane Sandy, local officials are using a relatively new wireless alert system to blast messages to those in the area where the storm is headed. Though similar to a text message, the alerts are actually a special kind of notification that the Federal Communications Commission has enabled for carriers that choose to participate.

It’s a modern-day update to the emergency alert system that has been used for decades on broadcast television and radio. It allows local, state and federal officials to send alerts about anything from severe weather to a terrorist attack.

Though similar to text messages, the emergency alerts are actually shorter (a maximum of 90 characters) and come with a special alert tone designed to distinguish them from other messages. According to the guidelines, the messages are to be used only for presidential alerts, Amber alerts or imminent threats.

Screen Shot 2013-02-07 at 1.16.33 PM

We had a chance to see the system in action as it was being tested during a visit to T-Mobile’s labs last year and also received an alert firsthand on a Verizon iPhone 5 just as Hurricane Sandy was headed our way during the preparations for Dive Into Mobile.

As one of our commenters, Tim O’Brien, noted, it’s nice if you know about the system before you get one of the alerts. “Would have been nice to know about the warning system ahead of time. Scared the shit out of me. Thought my phone was going to auto destruct.”

Here’s a video of the system being tested at T-Mobile’s labs near Seattle.

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