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With Wireless Emergency Alerts, severe weather is in your pocket

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National Weather Service - Betsy Rowland
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West of Princeton, IL - Aug. 9, 2021

Have you noticed your phone making more noise during severe weather? There’s a reason for that.

On Aug. 9, 2021, numerous tornadoes touched down across northern Illinois. Storms passed through Ogle, DeKalb, and Kane counties. Officials issued many tornado warnings that afternoon, urging thousands of people to take cover.

Some people heard the warnings from outdoor sirens, but most probably heard their cell phones blare with a disrupting tone. These notifications are called Wireless Emergency Alerts, commonly referred to as WEAs.

WEA-examples-2020.png
Weather.gov
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Dr. Victor Gensini is an Associate Professor of Meteorology at Northern Illinois University. He says WEAs are about as close to one-on-one communication as the National Weather Service can get.

“What WEA is trying to do is to check to see if you are inside the threat area," Gensini said. "If you are, [they] immediately push an alert message to your phone with a very specific tone that we’ve all heard before with directions to take action and the nature of the threat.”

Oklahoma knows a thing or two about twisters. A 2019 survey of Oklahoma residents showed that most people rely on outdoor warning sirens to receive tornado warnings. They were preferred over WEAs and NOAA Weather Radios, which are widely accessible.

Robert Giesecke is the Team Lead for Communications and Weather for the Boone County Emergency Management Agency. He cautions reliance on outdoor sirens alone.

“The key thing there is the word outdoor," he said. "They’re only designed to be heard outdoors. A lot of the newer homes are sealed so tight that you can’t hear them inside. So that’s why we suggest getting a weather radio or All Hazards Radio.”

The Pew Research Center reports 85% of Americans own a smartphone and 97% of Americans own a cell phone of some kind. But the user still has control over whether Wireless Emergency Alerts are toggled on or off.

Sophia Durbin is an engineering student at Northern Illinois University. She says she would never turn the alerts off.

“Even if I were in a situation where phones were asked to be off, like the movies or a concert, you're going to need to have it," Durbin said. "I can’t think of a situation where you shouldn’t have it on."

Meteorology professor Victor Gensini agrees that it is never worth it to disable the wireless alerts.

“It may be inconvenient if it wakes up your sleeping child or if it goes off in the middle of mass on a Sunday, but it would be a heck of a lot more inconvenient if your yard or your entire belongings inside your house were scattered over your yard.”

Wireless Emergency Alerts have been around since 2012. According to the Federal Communications Commission, WEAs have been used more than 61,000 times since then. These alerts are sent out for tornado warnings, as well as flash flood warnings and AMBER Alerts, which advise of child abductions.

Gensini says WEAs have been a tremendous success.

“These warnings, while some may perceive them as to be inconvenient or, in some cases, not needed, there are hundreds of cases where these types of alerts have saved people’s lives and have protected lives and property through proper mitigation.”

And your phone may be even more “chirpy” next storm season. In August, Wireless Emergency Alerts were updated to include a “destructive” category. Now, Severe Thunderstorm Warnings for 80 MPH wind gusts or baseball sized hail will trigger an alert.

  • Jurgens is a meteorology and broadcast journalism student at Northern Illinois University.
John Jurgens is a meteorology and broadcast journalism student at Northern Illinois University.