On February 9, the City of Portland tested for the first time a federal system called Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), warning residents to remain indoors and avoid traveling due to icy conditions. Cell phone customers with WEA-capable mobile devices received what looked like a text message that was accompanied by a unique attention signal and vibration that was repeated twice.

WEA was established pursuant to the 2006 Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act as a public/private partnership between the  Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the wireless industry to transmit alerts regarding public safety emergencies of imminent threat to safety or life, including:

  • Tsunami Warnings
  • Tornado and Flash Flood Warnings
  • Hurricane, Typhoon, Dust Storm and Extreme Wind Warnings
  • Blizzard, Ice Storm and Snow Warnings

Alerts from public safety officials are sent through FEMA’s IPAWS to participating wireless carriers that transmit the alerts from cell towers to mobile devices, using a technology that is separate and different from voice calls and text messages. This technology ensures that emergency alerts will not get stuck in highly congested areas, which can happen with standard mobile voice and texting services.

You will receive the alerts if you have a WEA-capable phone, your wireless carrier participates in the program (more than 100 carriers, including all of the major carriers), and you are located in a threat area. After receiving the alert, you should follow any action advised by the message, seeking more details from local media or authorities.

For more information, visit www.fcc.gov/guides/wireless-emergency-alerts-wea , or contact the FCC’s Consumer Center by calling 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322) voice or 1-888-TELL-FCC (1-888-835-5322) TTY; faxing 1-866-418-0232; or writing to:

Federal Communications Commission
Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20554