New system of warnings comes via mobile phone
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JANESVILLE Many area residents were startled at 4 a.m. Wednesday by an emergency message on their mobile phones warning of an impending blizzard expected to arrive more than 24 hours later.
The message was delivered by a new system launched in April by the federal government.
The Commercial Mobile Alert System is a partnership between the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Communication Commission and the cell phone industry. It is intended to enhance public safety by complementing the Emergency Alert System that sends warnings via television and radio.
The system is expected to be used most often by the National Weather Service to alert residents of dangerous weather.
The messages are free, and people do not have to sign up to receive them.
They also are geographically targeted, so people traveling through an area will receive the warnings.
Three kinds of messages will be relayed through the system:
-- Local Amber alerts, which alert residents of missing children. The first Amber alert via the system was issued this week in Texas.
-- Imminent threats, most of which will be weather related.
-- Presidential messages to alert of national emergencies.
Not all phones can receive the messages, but some can be upgraded. The phone boxes of the devices capable of receiving Wireless Emergency Alerts will carry the WEA logo.
Most commercial phones should be WEA-capable by the end of 2014, according to a government release.
The system does not track a person's location because it uses one-way technology, according to a government release.
Alert messages of 90 characters or fewer will "pop up" on mobile device screens. WEAs use a different technology than text messages to ensure they are delivered immediately and not delayed by congestion.
WEAs have a unique ring tone and vibration to alert people with hearing or vision-related disabilities.
People can opt out of the Amber and imminent threat alerts by calling their cellphone companies. People cannot opt out of presidential warnings.
Janesville area residents were alerted to an approaching snowstorm at about 4 a.m. Wednesday when the National Weather Service office in Sullivan issued an alert.
The alert was picked up automatically by the system, even though the severe weather was more than 24 hours away.
"There are some bugs in the system," said Susan Buchanan, spokeswoman for the National Weather Service.
"This is the first winter season where we've actually been issuing blizzard warnings.
"We're certainly looking at the problems that occurred along the way and working on fixing them," she said.
Sarah Marquardt, National Weather Service meteorologist in Sullivan, said it is appropriate to wake people if a tornado is brewing outside. A snowstorm that's a day away, not so much, she acknowledged.
The National Weather Service routinely issues alerts for bad weather as far in advance as possible. This time, the new system took over.
"I think that is something this system will take into account to see how it panned out and the impact it had," Marquardt said.
"I think they will be reviewing it and trying to find out the best way to handle this."
Marquardt late Wednesday afternoon said Janesville residents should see snow beginning midnight Wednesday with the heaviest snow falling early this afternoon into the early evening hours, ending by midnight today.
Blizzard-causing winds also are expected today, ranging from 30 to 45 mph.
Snow accumulation of 6 to 10 inches is expected.