Wireless emergency alerts helps get you important warnings - WCBD-TV: News, Weather, and Sports for Charleston, SC

Wireless emergency alerts helps get you important warnings

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The scale of damage from Sunday's tornados across the Midwest is becoming more clear. Authorities now say at least 26 twisters touched down in Indiana and at least 11 hit Illinois. On Tuesday, authorities in Washington, Illinois finally allowed homeowners back into some of the hardest hit neighborhoods.

When severe weather strikes, we can't always be close to a TV or radio to get updates. But last year, the U.S. government implemented a system to help keep cell phone users safe where ever that may be.

If you've been in an area under a tornado warning recently, you may have heard the abrasive alert coming from your phone. The alert is part of a new system implemented by a partnership with the local, state and federal government in 2012.

"It's probably one of the biggest break throughs in emergency alerting, really, that's come along, at least, for our standards of the National Weather Service. Where an alert automatically goes to your cell phone but more importantly its GPS based," says Ron Morales who is the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Charleston.

It's another way to help keep you and your loved ones safe during a number of dangerous situations.

"That is the goal of any alert or warning, is to evoke a reaction to that warning," says Morales.

The system has received high praise this week after an alert signaling a tornado warning interrupted a church service in Washington, Illinois on Sunday. The pastor stopped the service and the congregation hurried to safety until the storm passed. While the church was untouched, buildings just down the road were flattened.

We all have weather and news apps on our phones that alert us to danger in the area. But the Wireless Emergency Alerts is actually a feature on your phone you'll find under the settings. Not an app you download. And there is one other thing that sets it apart from the rest.

"The way the technology works, is striving to work, I should say, is to try to use cell phone tower technology to then say well, where are those cell phones in relation to the area being warned," explains Morales.

Here's how it works: if you live in Summerville but say you travel to Mobile, Alabama and there is a tornado warning issued for that area, the cell phone tower that your phone is pinging off of will send the alert to your phone along with everyone else within the warning location. Same goes for if you are on the road. If you travel in to an area that is under a warning, once your phone picks us that particular tower, you will receive the alert.

"It's the fact that it targets, geospacially, if you will, so where you are located. You don't have to know where you are. You don't even have to know what city or county you are in. Just as long as you and your phone are there, you're going to get that alert," says Morales.

The system is also used by FEMA, the FCC and the Department of Homeland Security as well as local and state public safety agencies to notify the public of Amber Alerts, evacuation situations as well as national emergencies.

To receive the alerts, you do have to have a WEA capable device, as well as a cell service provider that has opted in to the program. All the major national cell providers are using the system and most new devices are made with the capabilities.

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