WUOMFM

Who makes the decision to send emergency alerts to your phone?

Apr 7, 2015

Credit Flickr user Mike Gifford / Flickr

One of the realities of spring in Michigan is dicey weather, and May marks the beginning of tornado season in the state. But there's a way for authorities to let us know if severe weather threatens.

It's right there on your smartphone: Wireless Emergency Alerts, or WEA.

This service came about through an agreement between cell phone providers who voluntarily signed up for this service, the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, and a few other federal agencies.

Cliffe Lampe, associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, says there are three types of alerts that can be sent to your smartphone: presidential alerts, imminent disasters or threats, and Amber Alerts for missing children.

Rich Pollman, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says, "What's great about the WEA is that it's based on where you are whether you get alerted or not."

The system is targeted and prevents unnecessary alerts. Pollman explains that for Southeast Michigan weather warnings are not based on full counties, but rather a storm's location and projected path. This means that only those truly in the warning zone will receive an alert.

But for Amber Alerts, determining the geographic location for the notification is more difficult.

"A lot of the concern about this program is that when you have Amber Alerts, and they go off at an inconvenient time in the morning, it's going to cause people to seek out ways to block these kinds of alerts," Lampe says.