As tornado warnings and severe weather swept through south central Wisconsin Wednesday night and into Thursday morning, a few social media users raised questions about why their phones didn’t send them emergency alerts.
The Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system was launched by the Federal Communications Commission in 2012, and is used to send targeted, geographically-specific alerts to warn people about imminent dangerous weather and missing children. It also has the ability to send alerts from the president.
Many throughout south central Wisconsin reported receiving the alerts last night in areas where tornado warnings were issued.
Here’s some of the reasons why the FCC says not all phones that are in the area of dangerous weather may get an alert:
Depending on your cell carrier, emergency and Amber alerts are opt-in (Presidential messages are not). Check your phone settings and make sure you have emergency alerts turned on.
If you’re with someone who got a WEA alert and you did not, the FCC recommends checking that your phone is WEA-capable, turned on, and getting service from a carrier’s cell tower that participates in WEA–not all carriers do. According to FEMA, all major cell carriers voluntarily participate in the program
The alerts are based on the geography of cell towers, not location-tracking on your phone, according to the National Weather Service. “WEA uses radio technology to broadcast the alert from cell towers to mobile devices in the area of the threat,” the NWS website states. “Therefore, WEA doesn’t know exactly who is tuned in.” According to the FCC, the system has gotten far more geographically precise in recent years. If you aren’t in the localized vicinity of the dangerous threat, you may not get an alert.