How That Flash Flood Text Message Found Your Phone

A new system sends urgent weather warnings to area phones.



If your phone just gave off a persistent alarm followed by a text message notifying you of a flash flood warning currently under way for the next few hours in Massachusetts, you definitely weren’t alone. According to the National Weather Service, it’s all part of the new Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), a new system introduced by NWS last year to help notify the public of urgent weather events (think hurricanes, tornadoes, and blizzards in addition to flash floods). Here’s how it works:

If you’re in the vicinity of a severe weather event, the cell phone towers in your area will broadcast an emergency notification to everyone within range, similar to the way an AM/FM radio station sends out its signal over the airwaves. Only instead of tuning in, anyone with a WEA-enabled phone will receive the message if they’re nearby. The message will look like a text, but it’s actually a bit different: Emergency alerts have a unique ring and vibration, they don’t actually appear as messages on your phone, and they don’t cost anything to the user.

The WEA system comes from a partnership between major wireless carriers, the FCC, and FEMA, and the good news about the technology is that it doesn’t matter if your phone is even registered with a number in the region where the weather event is happening. (Mine isn’t).  The system is in place for other kinds of messages as well, like AMBER Alerts and “Presidential Alerts” in instances of a national emergency (though one assumes that if a text from President Obama is really going to get your attention, it’s going to have to start with “Hey.”) Any phone that’s within range will get the notification, meaning everyone can stay safe, dry, or away from tornadoes as long as you’re able to follow directions. The messages will find you. It’s something to feel safe about. Kinda, anyway.