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Storm Season Means Noisy Cell Phone Alerts

BY JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK -- Jonathan Carroll, a Phoenix coffee shop owner, first heard it a few weeks ago. He was asleep. He thinks it was around 8 am... when all of a sudden: "My phone was basically having a seizure."

Carroll says his smartphone, a Droid Razr, was making a sound that harkened back to the days of old-fashioned alarm clocks. He’d never heard anything like it.

"I think, this must be something important," says Carroll. "And I look down and it is like, dust storm warming. I'm like, really? (laughs)"

Not quite the catastrophe he was expecting.

"And I'm like, 'why am I getting this?,'" he says.

Not because he signed up for it. His phone was transmitting a Wireless Emergency Alert, a program of the federal emergency management agency, FEMA. The newest cell phones receive the alerts automatically. There are three kinds—Amber Alerts, imminent threats – which include warnings from the National Weather Service—and alerts from the president. They’re geographically tailored to specific areas.

"The cell towers will broadcast the warning out. And whatever phones that are in range of that cell tower, pick up the alert," according to Susan Buchanan of the National Weather service. She says the idea is to get people emergency information when they are on the move.

"The more time people have to get information, the more time they have to get to safety, so these wireless emergency alerts really could save your life one day."

Buchanan says earlier this month in Connecticut, campers and counselors were in a sports complex covered by a dome when a tornado was headed right for them.

"The manager received a wireless alert and ushered everyone to safety," says Buchanan. "And the dome wsa hit two minutes after the alert."

Here in Arizona tornadoes aren’t too common. But in the past year, there were a whopping 264 alerts for flash floods statewide. And since July 1st, 10 dust storm alerts.

One of those happened to come at an awkward moment...right when the city council in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale was discussing the fate of its professional hockey team, the Coyotes.

As the public weighed in on the team’s future, several phones in the room went off, causing Mayor Jerry Weiers some consternation.

Wireless Emergency Alerts began more a year ago. But many of us are getting these alerts for the first time this storm season because our smartphones are getting smarter. Jenny Weaver is a spokeswoman for Verizon.

"When this rolled out, there was maybe ten devices that were compatible with the wireless emergency alerts, but today we offer over 50 devices," says Weaver.

The list is growing, and varies by cell phone provider. Just last month, newer iPhones on AT&T started getting the alerts for the first time. Lucky for you, the phone companies say the alerts are completely free. And no, they actually aren’t mandatory.

Except presidential alerts. No one can opt out of those.

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