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Emergency alert system expanding to cell phones

Published: May. 11, 2011 at 1:30 AM EDT|Updated: May. 19, 2011 at 12:49 PM EDT
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MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) The national emergency alert system many people recognize from television or radio will soon expand to cell phones.

As announced on Tuesday, the expansion of the alerts will begin in New York City and Washington, DC.

While the alerts may be most recognized by the "this is just a test" message that often follows the beeps, those alerts are attention-getting nonetheless.

"You definitely hear it," said Karin Lane in Myrtle Beach Tuesday. "You hear it going off."

Lane realizes she will not get those alerts if she is away from the television or radio, like when she goes to the park with her granddaughter, as she did Tuesday. So now the Federal Communications Commission is expanding the alert system to cell phones, which people almost always have with them.

"I have to have my cell phone with me at all times really," Lane said. "If I'm gone from the house, I check it every once in a while even while I'm home, so it's a great idea."

Alerts to cell phones would fall into three categories:

  • Presidential alerts for national emergencies like terrorist attacks
  • Imminent Threat alerts for anything threatening life or property like hurricanes and tornadoes
  • Child abduction or AMBER alerts

The alert system will be fully operational in New York City and Washington DC by the end of the year,  and it will expand nationwide within the next year.

Alicia Sanders with Horry County Emergency Management said local agencies will have to communicate with national coordinators to make it work.

"Very few people today don't have a cell phone," she commented. "Almost everyone does. So that's just another way to get the message out."

A special chip will be included in new cell phones so they can receive the alerts with a unique notification sound. That chip will also make it possible to notify only cell phones in the particular area of an emergency. The alerts will go to cell phones within the range of specifically selected cell phone towers during the emergency.

So someone from Myrtle Beach who is in New York City during an emergency there will get an alert for New York City. That cell phone user will not get an alert for Myrtle Beach while in New York.

Some smart phones already have the special chip, and all phones will have the chip beginning next year. So many cell phone users will have to upgrade phones to receive the free alerts.

Sanders said while the alerts will be helpful they will only be used for rare national or regional emergencies. They should not be the only source of information during an emergency.

"You always need to rely on your local meteorologist, your local TV station, your local radio, because they're going to give you the best information."

Copyright 2011 WMBF News. All rights reserved.