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Wireless system sends emergency alerts directly to your cellphone
MONROE - If you hear a unique ringtone chirp twice from your cellphone, it could be a Wireless Emergency Alert sent in the form of a text.

These WEA messages are sent out by the National Weather Service or first responders and emergency coordinators like Tod Pritchard of Wisconsin Emergency Management. They beam a 90-character text message to cell towers, which will send the alert to every phone in the range of that tower.

For those of you who received an Amber Alert last week of an abducted child from a Chicago suburb, it was probably just an unusually strong cell tower broadcasting the alert.

Pritchard said this is not a tracking system, and that "big brother is not watching you through GPS."

It uses cell towers to send out a mass alert - no numbers or locations are taken from phones.

There are three types of alerts that can be sent to your phone: Amber alerts, usually issued by law enforcement about a child abduction. The second are imminent threat alerts that the National Weather Service will issue for tornados, flash floods, ice storms or blizzards. The final alert is a Presidential Alert sent only by the president in the event of a nationwide emergency. This alert has never been used.

The alerts are optional and free. You can access your phone settings or contact a service provider to opt out of Amber alerts or imminent threat alerts. Presidential alerts are mandatory.

"It's such a great system because it fills the gap of people not sitting in front of a TV or a radio," Pritchard said.

Green County Sheriff Mark Rohloff said this "eclipses a radio alert," in its efficacy.

"Say you're at home with your feet up and you get a tornado warning on your phone," he said. "Most would find out too late."

Pritchard said the Wisconsin Emergency Management team tries to use the alerts sparingly. They don't want to spam people with text messages but only when the event meets the criteria of a serious and imminent threat. Pritchard said they have only issued about 50 tornado warnings since the system's inception in April of 2012.

Pritchard said he views the WEA messages as an initial "headline" to the danger, and hopes it prompts people to seek more information via Internet, TV or radio. He said this greatly surpasses the use of sirens, which "are inherently flawed, because they don't tell you much; really, they just sound off and don't tell you anything." They can also foment a certain amount of panic, since the sirens can't really tell you about what's happening, just that there is danger.

"Your cellphone is basically a radio," he said. "As soon as the National Weather Service hits a button, it's on your phone instantaneously, like an electronic red flag."