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How to never miss an emergency alert from shootings to wildfires

Alerts on your phone are a great way to stay safe. Here’s a guide to making sure you get the right ones.

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)
6 min

Your phone could save your life.

There is no shortage of drawbacks of having a needy pocket computer follow you around 24 hours a day. There is the eyestrain, sleep disruption, erosion of privacy, no work-life balance and a busted attention span. But our phones have also made speedy emergency warnings the norm, whether they’re about an active shooter, wildfire, chemical spill, or abducted child.

How do you set up your phone to get timely emergency alerts?

Help Desk reader Paul Foldes wrote in with this question after reading our article on a shooting in the Georgetown neighborhood of the District. In the article, student Olivia Beech found out about the nearby incident through her phone.

According to Washington Post reporter Emily Davies, Beech’s alert came from her school. Like many universities, Georgetown has its own emergency alert system that notifies all staff and students of a major event by text and email.

Most people can get similar alerts through their own devices, but the exact options vary by location and where you work or go to school. Here are some basics on what alerts you can sign up for or opt out of.

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The big ones: Wireless emergency alerts

You are probably already set up to receive the really important alerts on your phone without knowing it. The United States has had a wireless emergency alert system since 2012, used for everything from natural disaster warnings to missing person alerts. There are a few main types of wireless emergency alerts: national alerts, imminent threats, Amber alerts and public safety notifications. You can opt out of or customize some of them in your phone’s settings, and they show up as a simple push alert on your device’s screen.

The most urgent and rarely used is a Presidential Alert, which cannot be turned off. This has only been tested once and not used for an actual emergency so far. The FCC is renaming this category the National Alert this year and expanding it to include alerts from the FEMA administrator.

The threat alerts can be sent by various government agencies like the National Weather Service or law enforcement and targeted according to your phone’s current location. These might include evacuation warnings during a hurricane or wildfire or a shelter-in-place warning during a mass shooting or bombing. Finally, there are Amber alerts used help to find minors who may have been abducted. All are typically based on where you are at the moment, so if you travel you will get alerts relevant to your latest location.

If you have an iPhone or iPad, you can check to make sure these are turned on by going to Settings then Notifications, and scrolling all the way down to the bottom of the screen. You’ll see three options in a section called Government Alerts. Make sure the ones you want are toggled on and are green. There’s an option to mute alerts so they don’t play a sound when your device is in silent mode.

If you use an Android device, you have a bit more control. In Settings, you have to look for a section called Wireless Emergency Alerts or Cell Broadcasts. If your Settings screen has a search bar, use it to search for this faster. You should be able to turn on or off alerts for Extreme Threats and Severe Threats separately, as well as Amber alerts.

You can also take a trip to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s website to browse additional national alert options you can get on your phone or through apps.

Additional local alerts

The built-in alerts on your phone will cover the biggest disasters, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg, to stick with disaster metaphors. To get more frequent and detailed alerts, sign up for everything your local governments have to offer. Many of these systems are run by systems like Nixle, a text-based emergency alert system. You can try to opt in directly by texting your Zip code to 888777.

Next, Google your state name and “emergency alerts.” Depending on what kind of natural disasters your area is prone to, you might get different options. For example, the California alerts website links to an option for early earthquake warning alerts. Larger earthquake warnings should come as a regular wireless emergency alert, but you can also download the My Shake app for more. (It works for Oregon and Washington as well.)

Your local department of emergency management should offer ways to sign up for more alerts. Many larger cities have dedicated alert websites where you can sign up for texts and emails. To stay informed in fast-moving situations, such as evacuations or mass shootings, follow all the local emergency and law enforcement agencies on Facebook and Twitter where they often post more frequent updates.

You might get alerts from utility providers automatically, but head over to your local water and power company websites to sign up for any text updates about things like boil notices and power outages.

School and work updates

If you are a student, check with your school about its own alert system and sign up if one is available. When schools have their own security or campus law enforcement, these alerts might be the fastest way to get updates about things like campus shootings.

Larger companies are also increasingly likely to have their own emergency systems, including text alerts. Similar to schools, these are helpful when you work in person on a sprawling campus or even in a warehouse.

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Neighborhood crime alerts

This is by far the most optional category and may not be the right fit if a constant stream of unconfirmed crime reports make you anxious. Apps such as Citizen and Nextdoor can be a way to follow events unfolding in your vicinity.

Citizen is a local crime app that sends alerts based on 911 and user reports, then links to live streams or updates from the scene showing things like a house fire or bar fight. Nextdoor is more of a message board for neighborhoods that can also send alerts from public agencies or just about regular posts.

Instead of simply following incidents that impact you personally, keep in mind that local apps can flood your phone with an excessive amount of alerts that do more to unsettle than help.

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