Why didn’t my phone get an emergency weather alert? Here’s some possible answers.

As tornado warnings and severe weather swept through south central Wisconsin Wednesday night and into Thursday morning, a few social media users raised questions about why their phones didn’t send them emergency weather alerts.

The Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system was launched by the Federal Communications Commission in 2012, and is used to send targeted, geographically-specific alerts to warn people about imminent dangerous weather and missing children (Amber alerts). It also has the ability to send alerts from the president.

Many throughout south central Wisconsin reported receiving the alerts last night in areas where tornado warnings were issued.

Here’s some of the reasons why the FCC says not all phones that are in the area of dangerous weather may get an alert:

  1. Depending on your cell carrier, emergency and Amber alerts can sometimes be opted out of (Presidential messages are not). Check your phone settings and make sure you have emergency alerts turned on.
  2. If you’re with someone who got a WEA alert and you did not, the FCC recommends checking that your phone is WEA-capable, turned on, and getting service from a carrier’s cell tower that participates in WEA–not all carriers do. According to FEMA, all major cell carriers voluntarily participate in the program
  3. The alerts are based on the geography of cell towers, not location-tracking on your phone, according to the National Weather Service. “WEA uses radio technology to broadcast the alert from cell towers to mobile devices in the area of the threat,” the NWS website states. “Therefore, WEA doesn’t know exactly who is tuned in.” According to the FCC, the system has gotten far more geographically precise in recent years. If you aren’t in the localized vicinity of the dangerous threat, you may not get an alert.

“It depends on where the cell tower is that your phone is communicating with,” News 3 Now chief meteorologist Gary Cannalte explained. “If the tower that you’re communicating with is in the warning area, but you are outside of it, you will get the alert. Vice versa: if you are in the warning area, and the tower that you’re communicating with is outside of the polygon area, you’re not going to get the alert.”

That’s why Cannalte says it’s important for people to have a variety of ways to get severe weather alerts, with weather radios being some of the most reliable alongside weather apps, news outlets, and other severe weather alert services.

The WEA will be adding new alerts for severe thunderstorms, starting next month.