Saturday, December 16, 2017
Tampa Bay Weather

Emergency weather alert system for cell phones far from comprehensive

Just imagine: A tornado touches down in your area, prompting the National Weather Service to issue a warning and then a text message on your cell phone alerts you to the danger.

Though not everyone is aware of it, that system already exists.

As Tropical Storm Andrea strafed the Gulf Coast, at least five tornado warnings were issued between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties in the early morning hours Thursday. Many people received alerts, but not all.

"It's still highly dependent on what smart phone you have," said National Weather Service meteorologist Tyler Fleming. "In time, people's phones more and more will have it."

Those without older cell phones aren't eligible to get alerts, but even millions of people who do have the latest devices can't get the messages.

More than 60 smart phones on the Verizon network — including the iPhone, BlackBerry and Droid — are compatible and should receive the alerts.

AT&T, the nation's other large carrier, offers the service on just 10 devices; iPhone is not one of them. It's unclear why so few are compatible. AT&T officials did not return emails seeking comment Thursday.

As storm-tracking technology has improved in recent years, weather officials have focused their efforts on disseminating information to more people more quickly.

"It's no longer an issue necessarily of us seeing the tornadoes coming. . . . It's an issue of people getting the warning and taking cover when they get the messages," Fleming said.

That, he said, is why it's so important for cell carriers to reach as many people as possible.

According to their websites, both Verizon and AT&T will continue making more devices compatible.

The weather notices, first used last year, are part of a broader cell phone alert network created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Officials can also disperse AMBER alerts and presidential alerts during national emergencies.

People can opt out of weather or AMBER alert notifications, though the presidential alerts are mandatory.

People who don't have eligible phones, or who believe a text might not wake them, can also buy an emergency weather radio for as low as $15, which will alert them.

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