Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) – What is it and why does it wake us up?

On Friday, January 15 at 2:00 AM, a WEA was issued for the full states of Michigan and Colorado by Michigan State Police in the form of an AMBER Alert for two missing/abducted children from Coloma, Michigan. Thanks to excellent police work, a law enforcement officer in Colorado recognized the vehicle from a police notification he received earlier, and the abductor was captured. The children were recovered unharmed.

There was a flurry of activity and controversy on social media concerning the value of a statewide Amber Alert WEA that early in the morning. Posts were placed on media websites in the article comment sections from individuals all over the state. I too was awakened and commented on the value of a WEA that early in the morning.

I know why a WEA was issued, and yet I found it very upsetting. I began to think that others might have felt the same. My concern rested in both how and when a WEA is appropriate and the reaction of the citizens concerning it.

Why was WEA developed?

On December 28, 2009, the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), working with the wireless and mobile industry, created the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA), and planned to begin sending alerts to the general public by 2012. They realized that people do not watch TV or listen to radio 24 hours a day, yet their cell phones are usually close at hand.

FEMA gave the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, working with local law enforcement, the capability to issue the AMBER Alerts. A WEA is a text and alert sound to your phone alerting you of an emergency. In most phones, the WEA is already turned on when you get the phone; in others it must be turned on manually. Under settings, you should find a menu that allows you to choose the emergencies for which you wish to be alerted. You cannot choose the tone, since it is solely for the WEA, and the tone will sound even if the phone is on vibrate. Your only option is to select the emergencies for which you wish to be notified. I sincerely encouraging everyone to leave the Wireless Emergency Alert application turned on in your phone. These alerts may save your life or that of others.

The WEA is used very judiciously by law enforcement for AMBER Alerts. It is issued only when law enforcement has a license plate and vehicle description of a suspected abductor. A WEA alert can be activated statewide or in very small areas. It can alert you of serious weather events long after you have turned off other devices and gone to bed. Your cell phone can wake you up and tell you to take cover or that precious children have been abducted.

When it comes to using WEA for AMBER Alerts, I was reminded that awakening the community is exactly what I would want if my child had been abducted early in the morning. This is a very valid correction. In discussing the activation with others, I also realized that we have a 24 hour workforce. At 2:00 AM some people are just going to or coming from work.

A WEA is limited to 90 characters, so it can only give you basic information. Your local radio or television stations are dedicated to giving you detailed information and have been faithful partners in Emergency Alert delivery for decades.

Though it is a rare that a WEA wakes you up at night, as one of the founders of AMBER Alert Michigan, I want to encourage everyone to make certain that their Wireless Emergency Alert is turned on in their cell phone. Even though you could get an early morning WEA, it is the only way to alert a large number of citizens to an emergency and wake them up in the wee hours of the morning

We never want a WEA to be ignored.

If a little disturbance can save a life, that should be well worth the price of a little sleep.

I apologize if my questioning of the early morning activation of the WEA Amber alert in two states seemed to be insensitive to some. It did, however, give me a platform on which to explain the Wireless Emergency Alert system and how it works.

Karole White
President Michigan Association of Broadcasters