Nor'easter 2013: Millions Warned Via Their Smartphone
February 8, 2013

Nor’easter 2013: Millions Warned Via Their Smartphone

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

There are many things your smartphone can do. It can remind you of an appointment, wake you up in the morning, give you the latest news, keep you up-to-date with your friends, and now, apparently, it can scare the hell out of you. More appropriately, your smartphone has a technology that can alert you when danger is on your doorstep.

This technology comes thanks to the geniuses from organizations like the NOAA, FEMA, CTIA, etc. who have implemented the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system. The system, which was announced last year and adopted by carriers including AT&T and Verizon, alerts smartphone users of impending threats such as superstorm Hurricane Sandy that devastated parts of New York and New Jersey last fall.

The latest warning, which came to many East Coast residents Thursday afternoon (Feb. 7), sounded off on many a smartphone alerting them of the impending Nor´easter that is set to blanket the northeast with upwards of 3 feet of snow by this weekend.

The warning came, depending on the carrier, is a beep, buzz, voice or loud siren with an emergency alert image, explaining the meteorological warning. Text popped up from the National Weather Service (NWS) with a blizzard warning alerting people to avoid travel, seek shelter and prepare for the worst.

The alert was meant to go to all people who had properly equipped phones, but apparently not everyone received it. While many people had the pleasure of being scared out of their wits by the unexpected warning messages, others went about their business with a blind eye–or in this case a deaf ear.

The new warning system was implemented to alert on three types of imminent threats: severe weather alerts, AMBER alerts, and presidential alerts issued by the White House. These messages do not come via standard text, but are programmed to appear automatically on a user´s screen when such alerts are needed.

"We have close to 100 carriers that are providing the service," Chris Guttman-McCabe, a vice president at the CTIA, the wireless industry trade group, told ABC News back in November after Hurricane Sandy hit. "We purposely made it so people didn't have to sign up for the service. We worked with FEMA and others to make sure it doesn't get abused. That's when people will only really pay attention to it."

It is possible for users to disable the weather and AMBER alerts, said Guttman-McCabe. However, the presidential alerts cannot be deactivated.

"WEA messages ensure that emergency alerts will not be delayed by network congestion, which can happen with standard mobile voice and texting services," a FEMA spokesperson told ABC News in November.

While the alerts are meant for all smartphone users under any of the carriers that adopted the system, not all people will get the alert until they upgrade their phones to newer models.

"It's a technology upgrade," Guttman-McCabe said. "As new phones come out, there is extreme likelihood that they can receive these [messages]."

For Verizon´s part, at least 35 phones will pick up the messages, including the iPhone and most Android phones (Galaxy Nexus and Galaxy S III). Verizon customers can check the website to see if their phone is listed. Some of the newest phones may not be included on the list, but ABC News confirmed that iPhone 4S and 5 users received the alerts; iPhone 4 users did not.

AT&T has 11 phones that support the alerts, including the iPhone 4S and 5. However, AT&T´s LTE network may not support WEAs. Sprint and T-Mobile´s phones also support the alerts.

While the feature is enabled automatically in Android phones, Apple told ABC News in November that on its iOS 6 phones, the feature has to be enabled in the settings and notifications menus.

Guttman-McCabe made it clear back in November that the goal is to make sure the service is available for all phones. "The goal is to get it out to as many people as we can. The percentage of people with access to the alerts will climb dramatically."

For more information on Wireless Emergency Alerts, check out the FAQ page at the CTIA website.