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The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Federal Communications Commission will launch a program this month that sends text message alerts to citizens about imminent threats to safety, including severe weather events and missing children.

The messages, also called the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) and Personalized Localized Alerting Network (PLAN), will appear similar to text messages but they will not cost anything or count against the receiver’s text plan.

The messages are an additional method for getting the word out about emergencies and aim to be a supplement to the existing Emergency Alert System, which runs messages over radio and television.

The alerts are location-specific and will be sent to people who have WEA-capable (Wireless Emergency Alerts) devices in the affected areas. Even if a consumer has a Massachusetts phone number, for example, and is visiting California, he will receive a message if an earthquake occurred while he was visiting the affected area of that state.

Only public safety entities can issue the alerts, which fall into three categories: 

  • Presidential alerts: Issued by the President of the United States or a designee.
  • Imminent threat alerts: Include severe man-made or natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes or tornadoes.
  • AMBER alerts: Meet the Department of Justice’s criteria to help law enforcement search for and locate an abducted child.

While consumers can opt out of imminent threat alerts and AMBER alerts, they cannot do so for presidential alerts.