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How your smartphone helps in times of emergency

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How do you feel if you leave the house without your smartphone? Vulnerable, perhaps? The sense of being disconnected due to not receiving calls, texts, emails or other information can be overwhelming.

Our phones have become an integral part of our everyday lives. In fact, a recent U.S. Cellular Better Moments survey revealed that 25 percent of smartphone owners check their phones every few minutes, 43 percent once an hour and 32 percent every few hours or a few times a day. With these facts in mind it comes as no surprise that our mobile devices have become a valuable resource in times of emergency, with Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), also called the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS).

WEA is a public safety system that allows customers with enabled wireless devices to receive geographically-targeted messages alerting them of emergency situations in their area.

These specialized messages are sent from federal agencies that include FEMA and the National Weather Service. They are free, and customers do not need to sign up to receive them. Alerts cover only critical situations such as weather hazards or dangerous activity, and include only messages from the President, those involving imminent threats to safety and AMBER Alerts. Current technology ensures these messages will reach those in highly congested areas, even when standard voice and text messages may have difficulty getting through. Alerts are sent only from cell towers in coverage areas within the zone of the emergency, so a Portland resident will be alerted of a State of Emergency during a snow storm or applicable emergencies while traveling.

These messages work. Over the past several years, Wireless Emergency Alerts have been issued for hurricanes and tornados, giving local residents time to seek cover; for child abductions, alerting communities to help aid public safety personnel; and for hazardous acts, warning residents to shelter in place. While the vast majority of alerts issued are for imminent threats of weather, the WEA system is in place to help disseminate important information as quickly as possible.

AMBER Alerts are issued through the WEA to help find missing and exploited children. In 2014, more than 12,000 children were reported missing. AMBER Alerts helped emergency personnel successfully recover 772 children, including 20 missing children, as a direct result of Wireless Emergency Alerts. When issued in the critical first hours, communities become the eyes and ears for local authorities.

There are a lot of reasons to keep your phone handy, in and out of the home. Your phone's onboard features such as the flashlight can certainly come in handy in a power outage. Accessories like car chargers and power boosters ensure our mobile devices will be ready when we need them. Alerts come from non-commercial entities, so are not subject to advertising or rhetoric, keeping us prepared and aware. Wireless Emergency Alerts are in addition to alerts broadcasted through television and radio.

U.S. Cellular participates in the WEA program and remains in step with the wireless community to see the program evolve as technology itself evolves. When it comes to saving lives, no measure is too much.

Matt Kasper isdirector of sales for U.S. Cellular in New England.

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