How your phone can be your lifeline in an emergency

Sept. 3, 2020

A woman looking at a smartphone

Most buzzes and squawks from your cell phone are everyday things: a message from a friend. A reminder from your spouse. An email from work. But sometimes, your phone breaks into a very distinctive tone and vibration that’s hard to ignore: a wireless emergency alert (WEA).

You’ve probably received at least one emergency alert this summer, whether it was about curfews during the civil unrest following George Floyd’s death or the recent rioting and looting in Minneapolis, about staying safe from severe weather such as tornados or flash floods, or about the governor’s stay-at-home order for COVID-19. It’s no coincidence: The fact is that cell phones have become an important tool to communicate safety information to large parts of the public.

WEAs come from federal, state or local public safety officials or from the National Weather Service. The goal is to call your attention to a developing situation no matter where you are or what you’re doing. They often include important information to keep you safe. All major phone providers participate in the WEA program, and users don’t have to subscribe – it’s already there on your phone.

If you’re not receiving WEAs, they may have inadvertently been disabled. Try checking the settings on your mobile phone. Be sure that “Government Alerts” or “Emergency Alert Messages” are enabled. But remember that you may not receive a WEA at the same time as a loved one or neighbor. The timing depends on where you are in relation to a nearby cell tower within the area the WEA was issued, whether you’re connected to WiFi, and whether you’re traveling at the time.

September is National Preparedness Month, and new weather hazards could be on the horizon with the change of seasons. Between those and COVID-19, it’s important to make sure that your emergency preparedness plans include your digital devices. Make sure everyone in your household has WEAs enabled on their phone, know what actions you should take when you receive one, and talk about what they mean with your friends and extended family.

Most importantly, when you receive a WEA on your phone, take it seriously and follow the instructions it gives you. This will not only help you and your family stay safe, it will help first responders do their jobs as safely as possible.