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Upgrading Wireless Emergency Alerts

Dec. 27, 2019

A Wireless Emergency Alert on the screen of a smartphone

If you have a cell phone, chances are you’ve received an AMBER Alert or a weather alert. The loud tone and the buzzing likely warned you of flash flooding or another imminent danger in your area. They’re called Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs), and they’re sure to get your attention. WEAs are a part of the Integrated Wireless Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), which is managed by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety division of Emergency Communication Networks.

After seven years of service, WEAs are getting a much needed update. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released enhancements to the system this month, which will allow for longer warning messages, multilingual capabilities, new alert classes, and better location accuracy of WEAs throughout Minnesota and the rest of the nation.

Up until now, when a public safety agency sent out a WEA, they had just 90 characters to tell you what was wrong and how you should protect yourself. That’s shorter than a tweet. With this update, the number of characters expanded to 360, which will certainly help in detailing the kinds of emergencies that are taking place – and how you can stay safe from them – where you are.

Another new benefit? The capability to add hyperlinks and phone numbers to alerts. Until recently, messages could not include these resources to point recipients to additional safety information. Given this new feature, it’s more important than ever that you review the messages. That’s why WEAs will remain on your device for at least 24 hours, or until you delete them – whichever comes first.

WEA 2.0 will also support Spanish-language alerts. This was not possible until now, and it will allow authorities who are capable to communicate more clearly with people whose primary language is Spanish.

WEA alerts are divided into classes depending on the type of emergency. For example, a WEA from the Imminent Threat class might notify you of a train derailment with a chemical release, whereas an AMBER Alert WEA is about abduction. WEA 2.0 adds new alert classes, including a Public Safety category. It will be used to recommend steps that the public should take to save lives and property during emergencies when that information doesn’t meet the criteria for the other classes. Examples of a Public Safety WEA include boil-water notices or no-travel advisories during a blizzard.

The goal of this upgrade is to give you the right information at the right time to make the right decisions in an emergency. So the next time you hear a loud tone on your phone, give the alert a thorough read – no matter how long it is. Click on the hyperlink or call the number provided for more information. Share the alert with your Spanish-speaking friends and, most important of all, follow the recommended safety steps.