By STEVE KARNOWSKI, Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Attorney Bob Burns already gets a lot of information from his smartphone, but he welcomes the prospect of getting a little more — free warnings about life-threatening weather from a sophisticated new government system.
Beginning Thursday, the new Wireless Emergency Alerts system gives the National Weather Service a new way to warn Americans about menacing weather, even if they are nowhere near a television, radio or storm sirens. It sends blanket warnings to mobile devices in the path of a dangerous storm.
As he sat at a sidewalk cafe in downtown Minneapolis, working on both an iPhone and an iPad, Burns said he was open to getting the unsolicited messages.
"I spend enough time reading junk on my phone that's of no real benefit to me. I might as well read something useful," the Minnetonka man said. "It's putting technology to use for the public good."
Thursday was a quiet day for severe weather nationwide, so officials did not expect to send any immediate alerts, said Greg Carbin, the warning coordination meteorologist at the national Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.
But in the future, the system will be used to notify people about approaching tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards and other threats. When a warning is issued for a specific county, a text-like message of no more than 90 characters will pop up automatically on the screens of newer smartphones in that area — primarily Android and Windows Phone devices — causing them to sound a special tone and vibrate.
Users do not have to sign up for the service or pay for the message. And people who prefer not to get the warnings can opt out of the system.
"These alerts will make sure people are aware of any impending danger and provide them with the information needed so they can be safe until the threat is over," said Amy Storey, spokeswoman for CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry trade group that helped set up the system.
The system does not yet work with all smartphones or in all areas. It is part of a broader alert network the Federal Emergency Management Agency launched in April that can also send public-safety warnings from the president and participating state and local governments. But the weather service estimates that more than 90 percent of the messages will be about storms.
The weather warnings will include tornadoes, hurricanes, typhoons, tsunamis, flash floods, extreme winds, blizzards and ice and dust storms. Designers were concerned about overloading users with too much information, so they deliberately limited the messages to warnings, not watches, and excluded severe thunderstorm warnings, weather service spokeswoman Susan Buchanan said.
Wireless carriers serving almost 97 percent of U.S. subscribers have agreed to participate, including the biggest nationwide companies — AT&T Inc., Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel Corp. and T-Mobile USA. Each of the four offers at least some phones capable of receiving emergency alerts, with more on the way.
Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile say they offer the service nationwide. AT&T offers it only in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore., at the moment. Spokesman Michael Balmoris said the company will add additional markets over time but declined to say which ones or when.
Government officials don't have a good handle on exactly how many capable devices are already in use, but Damon Penn, assistant administrator for national continuity programs at FEMA, said the number is probably in the millions.
He said smartphone users should check with their carriers to find out whether service is available and if their device is able to use it. He said many people own phones equipped to get the new alerts but don't know it yet.
Sprint spokeswoman Crystal Davis said most Sprint smartphones now in use can receive the alerts thanks to recent automatic software upgrades. All new models will be equipped, as will all new tablet devices.
One unanswered question is when the legions of Apple iPhone users like Burns will be able to receive alerts.
Buchanan said iPhones are supposed to join the system in the fall, but she didn't know if that means only new iPhones, or if software upgrades will make older models capable, too. Representatives of Apple Inc., which is highly secretive about its product upgrades, did not respond to several messages seeking details.