Minutes after the Pennsylvania State Police issued an Amber Alert for an abducted 5-year-old Philadelphia girl Monday night, a special message was sent to cell phones in the area telling residents to be on the lookout.
The first of its kind to be delivered in Philadelphia, Monday’s wireless Amber Alert was delivered through a new federal emergency wireless system called CMAS.
Once an Amber Alert is issued by a local authority, The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is notified and blast out the message to phones in a specific geographic area – in this case, all of Pennsylvania.
Similar to a text message, the emergency alerts have a slightly different look, according to wireless industry group CTIA. A special sound or vibration will be made when the emergency message arrives.
The CTIA says the new system delivers alerts based on your current location and the cell tower to which you’re connected. In the past, alerts were opt-in and tied to a person’s cell phone number and specific zip codes.
“So if you’re a person from California visiting the Philadelphia-area, you will get the Philadelphia-area alerts,” says CTIA Vice President for Regulatory Affairs Chris Guttman-McCabe. If you’re outside of the alert’s designated area you won’t get an alert.
“It’s a better service in that those that need to have that information will receive that information,” Guttman-McCabe adds.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says they just began using CMAS to send wireless Amber Alerts three weeks ago and that Monday night’s message was the first to be deployed in the Philadelphia-area.
Launched in April 2012, CMAS extends the emergency alert system to mobile devices. Amber Alerts are not the only messages sent through the system. Imminent threat alerts can be sent for severe weather and more. Messages from the president can also be delivered.
The CTIA says everyone is automatically opted-in to receive the alerts and that they don’t count against your wireless plan. You can’t opt-out of the presidential messages, but you can choose not to get the imminent threat and Amber Alert messages.
All four major wireless carriers -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon -- deliver the emergency messages. But not everyone may get them yet. The CTIA says some carriers may still be deploying the technology to broadcast the message in some areas.
Not every cell phone is equipped to get the alerts either. That is expected to change as new phones are released.