IPAWS – Wireless Emergency Alerts

Integrated Public Alerting and Warning System – Wireless Emergency Alerts

The Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS) is FEMA's national system for local alerting that provides authenticated emergency and life-saving information to the public through mobile phones using Wireless Emergency Alerts, radio, and television via the Emergency Alert System, and on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Weather Radio.
Local jurisdictions have to be certified as an Alerting Authority to be granted access to the IPAWS system. The City of Norfolk has been IPAWS Certified since 2013. Currently, there are over 1,600 certified IPAWS alerting authorities Nationwide.

What is a Wireless Emergency Alert? 

Wireless Emergency Alerts, or WEA, are sent through IPAWS, such as Amber Alerts and Weather Warnings. In the City of Norfolk, this is the primary system we use to alert the community of emergencies that are:

  • Urgent - Protective action needs to be taken immediately, or soon.
  • Severe - The emergency is causing an extreme or significant threat to life or property.
  • Certain – Imminent danger has been either observed, meaning someone has seen it occurring, or it is likely, meaning there is a reasonable cause to believe it is more likely than not. 

These messages are sent using the cellular service towers to alert phones and some other capable devices like sign boards, smartwatches, tablets, and other services that communicate with the cell towers. Most people will receive these alerts using modern WEA-capable cell phones.  More devices are being developed that can use wireless emergency alerts even if they are not cell phones. 

Depending upon the phone carrier's network, the message that accompanies an attention-getting tone may be limited to either 360 characters or 90 characters. Those receiving an alert are encouraged to tune into broadcast stations for more information.

Historical Emergency Alerts for the City of Norfolk. 

How Do I Get Alerts?

The primary way we use this system is to send the WEAs to modern cell phones. Many phones can be alerted and can call out to 9-1-1, even if they do not have active paid service. In any case, the device needs to be turned on and communicate with a cellular tower.  Furthermore, the settings for receiving an alert must be turned on. This is how you "sign-up" to get these types of alerts.  

WEAEach model of phone has a different way to turn these alerts on. We recommend doing an internet search for advice, contacting your service provider's customer service hotline, or visiting an authorized dealer's store for help on how to turn these alerts on.  

When we send out an alert, we define the area that is to be alerted. We will usually make the area as big as possible to make sure we alert those who are not only in the area of danger but also those moving toward it. Most disasters will result in us alerting the entire City unless it doesn't make sense to do so. When your device enters the alert area identified, and if WEA is enabled, you will receive the emergency alert. 

Are There Times I Might Not Get the Alert?

Yes. The following situations might cause you not to receive the WEA on your mobile device. 

  • Your device isn't capable, or WEA isn't turned on. (Call your phone provider for advice).
  • Your device may not have been programmed to do two things at once. Some models won't alert you if you are on a phone call or data usage is active (like streaming a video or surfing the web). Test this out when we send test messages by deliberately making a call or surfing the web when our test window is active.
  • Your device may have been connected to a tower site that was not in the alert zone. We try to define the alert zone larger to provide adequate coverage without being unreasonable in the number of people being disrupted. 
  • Your device had poor wireless coverage. This could be caused by being indoors in a large building with concrete walls. 

Do I Have to Be on My Carriers Network?

No. WEA is enabled to roam onto your carriers' competitor's towers.

If I Travel Away from The City of Norfolk, Will I Get an Alert?

No, not from the City of Norfolk; however, because WEAs are based upon geographical cellular tower locations, you will only receive alerts while connected to a cell tower that was identified to receive the alert by the alerting agency.

As an example, if you live in Norfolk and you travel to Richmond, you will get emergency alerts if Richmond sends one out. While you are there if we send an alert out regarding an incident in your neighborhood you will not receive the alert (because your device isn't physically in the alert zone).  

If you want to receive alerts for locations in the City of Norfolk while you are not here, like for your home, work, school, or a family member's house; then sign up for Norfolk Alert. It will alert your device to let you know of an incident, even if you aren't there. This is one of the major reasons we encourage everyone to sign up for Norfolk Alert and enable WEA on their phones. They complement each other well and serve as a backup to each other because they use different technologies to get alerts to you.

Are WEAs the same as Norfolk Alert?

No, Norfolk Alert is Norfolk's FREE subscriber-based alerting system. Norfolk Alert allows community members to sign up to receive emergency and community alerts and important weather notifications on their cell phones, work phone, home phone, text message, and e-mails. Subscribers will receive notifications about emergencies that may affect their home, their parent's home, their workplace, and any other location important to them, as long as those locations are within the City of Norfolk. 

During an occurring in an imminent emergency, we will first send a life-saving alert through the Wireless Emergency Alert System. This will allow us to provide the most accurate and up-to-date information to as many mobile devices that are currently in or around the area where the emergency is occurring or is about to occur. Once the imminent threat has subsided, we will send subsequent alerts regarding that event to Norfolk Alert subscribers who have registered for the Norfolk Alert system. 

For more information, visit the Norfolk Alert webpage. 

Does the City of Norfolk Conduct Live WEA Test Messages? 

Yes, beginning January 2023, we will test the WEA system monthly to a predetermined WEA Testing Zone in the City of Norfolk. Below is the schedule for each month by WEA Testing Zones. Click on the interactive map to locate the zone that corresponds with the month indicated in the table. 

Monthly_IPAWS_WEA_Zones Opens in new window



Although you might not live in the WEA Testing Zone for the designated month the test alert was sent, you still might receive it if you are nearby one of the cell towers that were defined in the testing zone. Meaning those who live in adjacent zones could receive the live test alert even though that zone was not in the targeted area. The test alert will be active for one hour. Your mobile device will only receive the test alert once you are in the alert area after the test alert is generated. You will also receive the test alert if you are traveling through the zone during the hour that the alert was generated.

In order to receive the test alert, you must enable Test Alerts in the notifications section on your mobile device. Review "How do I Get Alerts" in the section above. Similarly, if you do not want to receive the test alerts you can disable them in the notifications section of your mobile device. Please refer to your mobile provider for more information. 

The Monthly WEA Test Message is scheduled for the first Monday of the month at 1 pm. The alert will not be scheduled at that time if the city is experiencing severe weather, or if there is a large-scale active public safety emergency. If this occurs, we will schedule the test message for the following day at 1 pm. Test Messages will not be sent on holidays. If a holiday falls on the scheduled Monday, the alert message will be sent the following working day at 1 pm. On the scheduled day of the alert, a message will be posted on our social media accounts noting the time and zone the message will be sent. 

Here is the Test Message that will be generated monthly, depending on if your mobile device can receive 360 or 90-character Emergency Alert Messages:

Title - Norfolk Emergency Alert Test

360 Characters - TEST- The City of Norfolk is testing its Wireless Emergency Alerts. This message confirms that your phone can receive emergency alerts. In an actual emergency, this system would be used to share potentially life-saving information. No action is required as this is just a TEST. Visit https://arcg.is/0nKyrj to complete a survey regarding this TEST. END OF TEST

 90 Characters - TEST: Norfolk is testing its Wireless Emergency Alerts. No Action is required. END OF TEST

Major Carrier Resources

Below, we are providing links to pages made by the major cell providers related to WEA as a convenience. We do not endorse any carrier's service over another. We are only providing these links as a matter of convenience to those representing the biggest portion of the consumer marketplace.