Wireless Emergency Alerts Set to Launch

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BOONVILLE- A new emergency alert system that can deliver warnings directly to cell phones is set to launch nationwide by Friday. Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA's) will go out to all newer model cell phones in the tower's geographic location. This means the tower you are nearest to will send alerts, whether you are in your hometown, or traveling throughout the country. The alerts are sent out by default, meaning you do not sign up for it. Once you begin receiving the messages, you may opt out.

The Cooper County Emergency Management Agency will take part in the launch, which is a partnership with FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System to warn of national emergencies involving weather, governmental issues, and amber alerts. Tom White, director of Cooper County EMA, stressed the alerts are different than text messages. "While these warnings may look like text messages, there won't be any charges on your phone bill," said White. "It's more advanced than a text, which is why it's taken longer to develop."

The messages will be limited to 90 characters. For this reason, White urges recipients to call 911 if an alert confuses them or more information is needed.

Right now ten percent of cell phones in use are capable of receiving alerts. Newer model phones not able to receive them, can get a software update that will make them WEA-capable. The wireless industry estimates by 2014 nearly all phones on the market will be WEA-capable. The system will not track or locate individual cell phones or numbers, it simply broadcasts to all phones within a range.

One of the alerts that will benefit from the new system are AMBER Alerts. When a child goes missing and an alert is issued, the warning will immediately be issued to anyone with a WEA-capable cell phone.

Stephanie Chandler, a mother of two and Executive Director of The Academy of Early Childhood Learning in Columbia, said she thinks the new system will be beneficial to parents and children. "Obviously anytime an AMBER alert is issued, you're concerned, but this will allow everyone to make the right turn and know how to approach the situation. The system will make the word spread faster," Chandler said.

One of the biggest advocates of AMBER Alerts, and a nationally recognized victim of child kidnapping, Elizabeth Smart, told KOMU 8 she strongly supports any improvements. "I think we should be utilizing as much different technology as we can so we can not only try to catch up to those predators, but to hopefully get one step ahead of them," Smart said.

White said if you are unsure whether or not your phone is WEA-capable, you should check with your carrier.

Follow the Cooper County EMA on Twitter here.