Scott Friedman, NBC 5 Investigates
A new system that automatically sends cellphone users messages about storms, terror alerts and other threats does not reach many North Texas cellphones.
An NBC 5 investigation has found a new system designed to send emergency alerts directly to cellphones does not reach many Texans -- nearly four months after a government deadline to have the system up and running.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Communications Commission and the National Weather Service got together with the nation's big wireless companies, promising a system that will deliver instant alerts about approaching storms, terror threats and other large scale emergencies.
"It's another cool way we can use to push weather information out to the people -- not only to the citizens of Texas, but to our country as well," NWS meteorologist Jennifer Dunn said.
The Wireless Emergency Alerts system is designed to be free. People do not have sign up for it, and the alerts reach them even while they are traveling in another part of the country.
Wireless companies that volunteered to be a part of the program agreed to be ready by an April 2012 deadline.
In May, FEMA sent out a news release implying that the system was ready to go for this hurricane season, which started June 1. The top of the release touts that "mobile wireless emergency alerting capabilities will be available nationwide through participating carriers."
In June, a NWS release announced that the agency would start "pushing extreme weather warnings over the system in June 2012."
But the NBC 5 Investigates team got a slightly different story when it talked to Dallas-based AT&T Inc. -- the nation's biggest wireless company based on wireless subscribers, including cellphones and tablets.
"Our network teams are working with our vendors to enable Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) in our Texas wireless network in the near future," AT&T said in a statement.
That doesn't sound like a nationwide system that's ready to go.
The NBC 5 Investigates team went back to FEMA with questions and asked if it was misleading to indicate to people that the system is available this summer when a lot of steps still have to happen.
"The news release said that the FEMA portion of the system was established and running nationwide and that's not a misstatement -- that's correct," said Damon Penn, FEMA assistant administrator of national continuity programs. "Again, what part the carriers play and where the carriers are at in the process really depends on the carriers."
In other words, FEMA and the Weather Service are ready to go. And if a major storm hit the Dallas-Fort Worth area today, the weather service could send a message to the alert system, but AT&T wireless customers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area wouldn't see the alert.
"In this case, the government's the good guys, and we're ready, but the marketplace is lagging behind," said Rep. Joe Barton, a member of the congressional committee that created the alert system.
NBC 5 Investigates asked Barton if it was a disappointment that not all companies have met the April deadline.
"It is a disappointment that they haven't, but the fact that they're trying is a good thing," Barton said.
Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile told NBC 5 Investigates that they are ready to deliver alerts nationwide.
But there's one more catch -- not all Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile phones are capable of receiving alerts from the WEA system.
"It's best to check with your local carrier to see how far they have come along with upgrading this or when they plan to," Dunn said. "See if it's already available on the cellphone or mobile device that you do have."
AT&T's website lists only three markets where it can issue alerts -- Washington, D.C.; the New York City area; and Portland, Ore.
AT&T would not give NBC 5 Investigates a timeline for Texas. In a statement it would only say: "We're not currently ready in Dallas, but we're working aggressively to get there."
Barton said as wireless customers learn more about the system he believes they will demand the alert system and put pressure on any company that's not providing it in a particular market.
"That's what will ultimately drive 100 percent implementation, is someone will say, 'Verizon has it all,' or, 'Sprint has it all,'" Barton said.
Currently, iPhone users cannot receive WEA messages because the phone's current operating system is not designed to accept the alerts.
NBC 5 Investigates has heard reports that Apple is testing a new version of the software that may change that, but an Apple Inc. representative declined to comment.