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Weather alerts on cellphones a 'game changer'

  • Associated Press
  • June 22, 2014 - 5:30 PM

MADISON, Wis. — When parts of Wisconsin were under tornado warnings last week, many state residents, including Gov. Scott Walker's wife, learned of the severe weather danger through their cellphones.

Wisconsin Emergency Management spokesman Tod Pritchard said the system that provides those weather alerts has been a "game changer" when it comes to keeping people safe.

"It gets (information) to a device that is right on millions of Americans," Pritchard said.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported (http://bit.ly/1yBXzF5 ) that tornado warnings and broadcast alerts might have been enough to get a severe weather warning out to the public 10 years ago. But an aging population might not hear those warnings, and a person watching Netflix wouldn't see an alert on television, said Laura McLay, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and systems engineer.

Pritchard and others said the cellphone alerts are a good supplement to warning systems that are already in place.

Today's phones come with the emergency alert system built in. When there's an emergency — such as a tornado, a missing person or a hazardous materials spill — cellphones buzz and ring with special tones. Because the messages are sent to every cellphone in the affected area, a resident will get information even if he or she is away from home.

Still, the system has limits.

Pritchard said the messages can't be longer than 90 characters, so it's best to think of them as an initial warning to take cover, then use a weather radio to find more information. In addition, cellphone models that are a few years old won't get the alerts.

And, if a user is in an area without wireless coverage, or if the cellphone battery dies, the alerts won't go through.

David Janda, assistant director of Dane County Emergency Management, said getting alerts from multiple sources — hearing the tornado siren and feeling your phone buzz in your pocket — might help people realize they need to pay attention.

"The more different methods that people get that information, the more likely they'll heed it," Janda said. "It's the reinforcement that really gets people to act."

© 2014 Star Tribune