Commercial Mobile Alert Service (CMAS) Myths: Part 2

On February 23, 2012, in CMAS & Mobile Alerts, by with SRA International

This article is part 2 in a series dispelling common myths and misconceptions about the Commercial Mobile Alert Service (CMAS)–also known as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA)–that we have heard from the public, public safety practitioners, the wireless communications industry, and local, state, and Federal officials. In a previous post, we discussed concerns about tracking chips (there aren’t any), demands on cell networks (CMAS messages won’t be impacted), charges for CMAS messages (there’s no charge), and more. This article tackles another set of common myths we have heard about CMAS.

Myth 6: CMAS will provide all the information I need during an emergency event and will take the place of all my previous sources of emergency information.

Fact: CMAS is just one more medium through which you can be alerted to an emergency event and will not replace other sources of emergency communication. 

CMAS alerts are a maximum of 90 text characters! CMAS is designed to take advantage of one more medium many Americans rely upon – cell phones – to alert an increasingly mobile population in the U.S. during an emergency event. However, the limited number of text characters also limits the amount of information CMAS can provide to you during an emergency event. It is very likely that while CMAS may alert you (similar to the way a tornado siren would) that an event is imminent or taking place, you will still turn to traditional sources like TV, radio, the internet, or SMS-based local alert subscription services (for example, DCAlerts, Alert LA County, and university-based campus alerting services) for more detailed emergency information and to determine if you should take action to protect yourself.

Myth 7: All CMAS alerts will come from the Federal Government.

Fact: A CMAS Presidential alert could be issued by the President of the U.S. in the case of a nationwide emergency event; however, we expect the vast majority of CMAS alerts will be issued by your local or state emergency manager, local or state police, or the National Weather Service to notify you of imminent threats to life or property, dangerous weather conditions, or a child abduction in your area. 

The Federal Government’s only other role in CMAS is maintaining the Federal Alert Aggregator to which local, state, and Federal CMAS alert originators send CMAS alert messages. The Federal Alert Aggregator authenticates any CMAS alert data it receives and sends it to all participating wireless carriers who, in turn, broadcast the CMAS alert to cell towers in the geographic area that was identified by the local, state, or federal CMAS alert originator.

Myth 8: I will not know who is sending a CMAS alert.

Fact: To successfully issue a CMAS alert, a CMAS alert originator must complete a specific set of data fields – one required field is the source of the CMAS alert. 

It is worth noting here that in order to be authorized to originate a CMAS alert, all currently recognized local, state, and federal alerting entities must complete a series of steps with FEMA to gain access to CMAS for alerting a specific geographic county or state area and integrate CMAS into the entity’s current alerting system and processes. Only once these formal procedures are complete can an alerting entity become an authorized CMAS alert originator and gain access to the secured system.

Myth 9: I need to download an application or opt-in to a service to receive CMAS alerts.

Fact: The CMAS specification requires that CMAS-capable phones automatically be opted in to receive CMAS messages. 

In many cases, CMAS-enabled phones will automatically receive and display CMAS alerts. However, on other phones, we have noticed that CMAS appears to be programmed into CMAS-capable phones like an application (app) similar to other apps you might purchase and download. The fact is that, at present, individual mobile device manufacturers like Apple, Nokia, and Samsung are each configuring their cell phones for CB technology differently. So every CMAS-enabled phone seems to vary a bit from one to the other. We expect to see more standardization of CMAS configuration across different manufacturers and cell phones in the long term as wireless carriers and customers demand it.

One other item to note is that you can choose to opt-out of receiving CMAS imminent threat or AMBER alerts on your cell phone; however, you cannot opt-out of receiving Presidential alerts that notify you of nationwide emergency events in the U.S. Because every CMAS-enabled mobile device model is configured a little bit differently, the process of opting out may vary from cell phone to cell phone.

Myth 10: I’ll be able to get a CMAS alert anywhere in the U.S. once CMAS is deployed in April 2012.

Fact: You will only receive a CMAS alert if your cell phone is located within a geographic area (for example, Philadelphia County) that an authorized CMAS alert originator has designated to receive a specific CMAS alert. 

Receiving a CMAS alert is also dependent upon network coverage. Just as you sometimes cannot send a text or receive a call because you are in a “dead zone” or have weak cell coverage, your phone will still be subject to the quality of network coverage in your location. Network coverage can be affected by a variety of factors, including coverage gaps in low density areas, in-building locations, and other “dead spots.”

That wraps up our two-part series on CMAS myths. We hope you now have all the information you need about Cell Broadcast technology, the cell phones expected to receive CMAS alerts this year, who will issue CMAS alerts, and what you can expect to see on your own cell phone. In your opinion, have we dispelled the most common myths and misconceptions about CMAS? Can you think of any others?

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