Last week, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) utilized the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) messaging tool for the first time. The intent of the WEA service is to better communicate emergencies and give users clear information about the threats on their cell phones and smartphones.
However, there was a problem due to a glitch in the federal system. The message sent Feb. 11 warning of the most-recent winter storm was labeled “Civil Emergency — Prepare for Action.” According to MEMA, this caused confusion and even some fright among users.
“This was the first time MEMA used the alerts, and I know there was some confusion in the public,” said MEMA director Robert Latham. “There was no way to test the system before its use, so it was a learning experience for both us and the cell phone companies. We are confident the problems are corrected and in the future we will only use these alerts when the safety of our citizens is threatened. I am convinced this alerting system can save lives, as long as citizens do not disable it on their phones.”
MEMA had to work quickly to fix the issue. On Feb. 12, the day after the first WEA message, the Interstate 20 bridge at Vicksburg was closed due to an accident and chemical spill. Spokesperson Greg Flynn said when he learned of the problem on the morning of Feb. 12 with the Feb. 11 alert, he immediately called the provider, GSSNet, and told them MEMA needed the issue resolved promptly so the agency could send the alert concerning the I-20 bridge accident.
Flynn explained that the problem was with WEA’s software coding, which threw it into the existing category of “civil emergency” under the federal system.
“I have to give credit to GSSNet. They fixed the problem in about 30 minutes,” Flynn said
The Feb. 12 WEA alert concerning the bridge accident worked as planned, and was simply titled “Travel Alert.”
WEA messages are sent to smart phones in specific areas where a severe incident is occurring. The messages are relayed to all cell phone towers in the incident area. Each phone will only receive the message once. It is a free service so users don’t have to sign-up for anything. The only requirement is having a device capable of receiving the alerts and having the alerts turned on.
Participation by cell phone companies is voluntary and customers should check with their provider to see which devices are able to receive WEA messages.
WEA messages in Mississippi will come from only four sources: Mississippi Emergency Management Agency for imminent threats; Mississippi Department of Public Safety for Amber Alerts; National Weather Service for extremely severe weather warnings; and the President of the United States.
This is an opt-out system where alerts can be turned off on the phones, except for messages from the President, but MEMA highly discourages people from doing this. This is a nationwide system, so users travelling will receive messages for the area in which they are located.
Flynn said he learned first-hand just how important this nationwide system can be in emergencies. He and his wife were travelling in the Atlanta area when they were alerted via phone that they were under a tornado warning.
“It doesn’t matter where you are. WEA will send an alert if there is an emergency in the area where the user is travelling,” Flynn said. “This system can save lives.”
Flynn said MEMA is actively working with wireless providers, recruiting them to join the WEA system. He also said MEMA wants to see more devices that are WEA-enabled and wants more consumers to ask their carriers to offer more of those devices.