County officials announced Monday they plan to use the Wireless Emergency Alert system to reach cellphones during emergencies.
The County Office of Emergency Services and the sheriff’s department recently gained the ability to use the new federal system, and while neither agency has used it yet, peak fire season is just ahead.
“The next time your phone makes that unique tone and vibration, please pay attention,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Greg Cox said. “It could be an alert telling you how to protect yourself and your family.”
Wireless Emergency Alerts will be used to notify people in a targeted area about nearby emergencies and actions they should take, such as evacuating or staying indoors. Cell towers in a targeted emergency area broadcast the alert directly to cellphones, and phones capable of receiving the transmission in that area will get it. So if a wildfire were spreading toward a neighborhood and the sheriff’s department needed to quickly evacuate people, it could send a message to cellphones in the evacuation area.
“These days, no matter what people are doing, they’re never far from their cellphones,” Sheriff Bill Gore said. “Wireless Emergency Alerts are a powerful tool that increases our ability to reach people with timely warnings.”
Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) complement but do not replace other notification and information sources the county uses in an emergency, such as AlertSanDiego, the mass calling system that contacts listed and unlisted landlines and registered cellphones, or the television and radio broadcast Emergency Alert System.
But Wireless Emergency Alerts have some unique traits. They can target phones in a particular area, and people don’t have to register or take any action to get the alerts. That means tourists, residents and people new to the area like students or members of the military can get notifications on their cellphones, even if they never sign up to get emergency calls with AlertSanDiego.
However, everyone is still encouraged to register cellphones with AlertSanDiego; for one thing, there is no limit to the amount of information an AlertSanDiego call can carry.
In contrast, Wireless Emergency Alerts are just 90 characters. They will contain basic information about the emergency, actions people should take to protect themselves, and where people can get more information.
The WEA system was developed and is managed by FEMA, the Federal Communications Commission, and the major wireless companies. Most cellphones purchased in the last two years are capable of receiving the alerts.
More information on Wireless Emergency Alerts is at