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Bad weather coming? NWS will send warnings right to your phone

June 29, 2012|By Deborah Netburn
  • What is believed to be a tornado is seen touching down in Grand Isle, La.
What is believed to be a tornado is seen touching down in Grand Isle, La. (Tim Osborn / NOAA )

Getting an unexpected message on your smartphone from someone you don't know is usually very, VERY, annoying, but if that message can save your life? Well, maybe it's not so bad.

On Thursday, the National Weather Service said it will start sending warnings about extreme and dangerous weather to people's cellphones in a 90-character message that will look like a text.

You won't have to sign up to get the messages and they won't cost you anything. (Although if for some reason they infuriate you, you can opt out.) Think of them as an extension of the emergency alert systems that are already broadcast on television and radio stations.

The people at NWS are mindful of your time and your tolerance for receiving unsolicited messages on your phone, so they will only send out alerts for the most scary weather events such as tornadoes, flash floods, hurricanes, extreme wind, blizzards, ice storms and dust storms.

However, thunderstorm warnings will not be part of the initial rollout of the broadcast messages because they occur too frequently. 

The messages will look like text messages on your phone, but they'll work differently. They will be broadcast from cellphone towers -- sort of like an AM/FM radio station -- and will only be picked up by cellphones within a certain geographic range.

While wireless mobile service providers representing nearly 97% of subscribers are participating in distributing wireless emergency alerts, it's not like all smartphone users will start seeing weather alerts on their phones immediately.

Your phone has to be enabled to receive the wireless emergency alerts, and as of now, that rules out lots of people -- including everyone who uses an iPhone.

The Associated Press reports that iPhones are supposed to join the system in the fall, but it is unclear if only new iPhones will be included or if software will be available to update older iPhones so they can receive alerts.

Apple did not respond to the Los Angeles Times' request for comment. 

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