Governor uses emergency notification system to share COVID-19 message

Nov. 20, 2020

At approximately 10 a.m. on Nov. 12 phones throughout Alaska received an official State of Alaska emergency SMS text message stating that COVID-19 cases are escalating and directing individuals to a video of Gov. Mike Dunleavy calling for Alaskans to work together to reduce infections over the next three weeks.

The governor announced a list of actions he is taking to combat the rise of COVID-19 in Alaska. This includes his 30 day disaster declaration which took effect on Monday, Nov. 16 directing state employees to work from home whenever possible, and mandating masks and social distancing at state work sites for employees and visitors alike.

The governor deemed the current escalation of COVID-19 infections among front-line workers, including healthcare staff, first responders, and servicemembers and their support crews, as an imminent threat to the safety of Alaskans and thus activated the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) System to send a message state-wide.

Many Alaskans who received the WEA message were upset or confused by the message, or had questions about its use. Those who didn’t receive a message wanted to know how to sign-up; others who did receive it wanted to know how to opt-out. Important to note is that neither is possible.

The Wireless Emergency Alert System is designed to deliver emergency messages via cell phones to the public. The system is commonly used to send Tsunami Warnings, Amber Alerts, and other messages that require immediate action. WEAs are one-way alerts to compatible cell phones in range of a cell tower. Authorities cannot collect any data from an individual nor do they have individual phone numbers. WEA enables government officials to target emergency alerts to specific geographic areas 

The alerts can be broadcast to the geographic area affected by an emergency. This means that if an alert is sent to a zone in Anchorage, WEA-capable mobile devices in that zone can receive the alert, even if they are roaming or visiting from another state or part of the state or use an out-of-state phone number. In other words, a customer visiting from Fairbanks would be able to receive alerts in Anchorage so long as the person has a WEA-enabled mobile device in the alert zone. Depending on the nature of the emergency, emergency management can target areas as small as 1/10th mile in proximity to a cell tower.

In order to receive a WEA message, your handset must be WEA-capable, switched on, and in the vicinity of and receiving service from a cell tower of a wireless carrier that participates in WEA. Some participating carriers may offer WEA on some, but not all, of their mobile devices. Consumers should check with their wireless carriers or phone manufacturers to find out if their cell phone is WEA-capable. A WEA alert appears on the screen of the recipient's handset as a text-like message. The alert is accompanied by a unique attention signal and vibration, which is particularly helpful to people with hearing or vision-related disabilities.

To find out more about your phone’s compatibility or the WEA service in your area, contact your service provider.