November 1, 2023
How Does WEA Differ From SMS Emergency Alerts?
When the FCC and FEMA tested the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system on October 4, 2023, some people likely assumed they were receiving text messages from the government. However, WEA works differently than SMS text messaging, and only authorized government agencies can use the WEA system.
Keep reading to learn more about WEA and how its technology differs from SMS.
What Are Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA)?
Wireless emergency alerts are messages created to reach all cell phones, including pre-paid phones. When a WEA is sent, phones emit a unique ringtone and display a message on their home screens. The ringtone will sound even when someone has their phone’s volume turned down or off. The message is displayed directly on the home screen or lock screen, so it doesn’t go to a user’s text messaging app.
Importantly, every cell phone and smartphone within a designated area will receive a WEA. The system doesn’t distinguish between phone numbers. Instead, it sends the same alert to all devices.
WEAs don’t even need to know your identity, phone number, or exact location. When an agency sends out WEAs, they go to wireless carriers. Carriers then use their cell towers to push the message to devices. This makes the recipients’ identity ambiguous and unimportant. For example, if you were to drive your car into an area experiencing a potential threat, your device would display the alert as soon as it comes within range of the cell tower.
Types of WEA
There are three major types of Wireless Emergency Alerts.
National Alerts (Presidential Alerts)
National alerts, which were once called Presidential Alerts, come from the President of the United States or the Administrator of FEMA. So far, the government hasn’t issued any National Alerts, but it would likely do so in the event of a serious weather event or suspected terrorist attack.
Imminent Threat Alerts
Imminent threats come from the National Weather Service to warn people in an area about extreme or severe weather events, including flash floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and high winds.
Amber Alerts come from local or regional law enforcement agencies to let people know about child abductions. They typically include information about the missing child, the last adult seen with the child, and how people can help law enforcement find them.
Amber Alerts are named after Amber Rene Hagerman, a Texas child abducted in 1996. AMBER also stands for “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.”
Required WEA Testing
Federal law passed in 2015 requires FEMA to conduct nationwide WEA tests at least once every three years. Most recently, FEMA and the FCC tested the nationwide emergency alert system on October 4, 2023. The plan successfully delivered messages to millions of wireless devices. It also sent messages to TVs and radios.
Congress passed the READI Act (Reliable Emergency Alert Distribution Improvement) of 2020 to modify how government agencies could transmit emergency alerts. According to the act, no one can opt out of receiving alerts. Previously, carriers and individuals could opt out of alerts other than Presidential Alerts. The act also requires repeated transmissions instead of only sending the message once.
Who Uses SMS Emergency Alerts?
Only certain government agencies – and local law enforcement when they meet Amber Alert requirements – can send WEAs. Other institutions, including schools, healthcare organizations, and businesses, typically rely on SMS emergency alerts.
SMS text messaging often works well for organizations that want to reach large numbers of people. Unfortunately, plenty of barriers could prevent you from reaching phone numbers.
Unlike WEAs, consumers can block SMS text messages. Carriers can also filter SMS emergency alerts, which prevents them from reaching your targets. Ideally, carriers and the algorithms they use to stop unwanted spam messages wouldn’t block communications from legitimate organizations. In the real world, though, legitimate communications can look suspicious to spam-blocking technology.
TCPA’s “Emergency Purpose” Exemption
The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) includes rules that prevent organizations from calling or texting consumers for commercial reasons unless they have permission from the consumers. That’s why you need to ask people to “opt in” before you send them text messages.
(Messages should also include clear instructions for opting out of future communications.)
The rules changed slightly during the COVID-19 pandemic as more groups found it necessary to give critical information to large numbers of people. The TCPA now includes an “emergency purpose” exemption that lets you call or text consumers without their consent.
You can only take advantage of the exemption when you have a legitimate emergency situation. Emergencies might include rescheduling appointments, updating location hours, and service interruptions. For example, a school could send emergency texts to student guardians when severe weather forces a closure or delay. Other acceptable exemptions include pharmacies contacting patients for information needed to fill an urgent prescription and utility companies communicating service outages to customers.
Device Cloud Observations During the WEA Test
During FEMA’s nationwide test on Oct 4, 2023, our Device Cloud temporarily suspended operations to verify alerts across our devices and networks. The data collected from this verification was shared with the relevant parties to contribute to enhancing the national emergency communication infrastructure. During this test, the alert was received across 41 unique area codes on our Device Cloud, some displaying messages in both Spanish and English.
Caller ID Reputation will share this and other data with relevant agencies to help enhance the national emergency communication infrastructure’s effectiveness.