LINCOLN — Marc Shkolnick was checking out at Hy-Vee on Saturday afternoon when a loud, warning tone erupted throughout the store.
His first thought — and the thought of several others in the south Lincoln supermarket — was that a store alarm had been tripped.
But Shkolnick said it was soon discovered that the tones came from dozens of cellphones that simultaneously sounded to alert people of a child abduction in northwest Nebraska.
Saturday marked the first time that the Nebraska State Patrol had used a relatively new alert system that sends out warnings of life-threatening emergencies via text messages on cellphones.
The warning was an Amber Alert about the abduction of a 1-year-old child in Chadron, Neb.
Such “wireless emergency alerts,” or WEAs, have been used by the National Weather Service for the past year in more localized areas where a tornado warning, flash flood warning or a blizzard warning has been issued.
But Saturday's alert might have been the first time that many Nebraskans got an emergency alert on their cellphones because Amber Alerts, as a rule, go all across the state.
State and local officials said Monday that people might expect to get more WEAs in the future as more agencies gain permission to use them. Although such alerts can only be used in life-threatening situations, officials said the spread of cellphones make WEAs an effective tool for warning people. About 90 percent of households now have cellphones.
“This is one of the best ways we can reach out to the public, to keep them safe and out of harm's way,” said Darrin Lewis, the emergency management director for Buffalo County, in central Nebraska.
Buffalo County is the first county in the state to be authorized to issue emergency text message alerts through the federal Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, though other counties and local agencies are in the process of gaining such approval.
Douglas County, for instance, is preparing its application and hopes to gain approval before the end of the year, according to Paul Johnson, the county's emergency management director.
Counties would use the alerts primarily for notification of hazardous chemical incidents, such as an anhydrous ammonia leak from a plant or train, and can target the warnings for particular neighborhoods that require an alert or evacuation.
Other agencies would utilize the text message warnings for other events, such as a dangerous release from a nuclear power plant or a breach of a flood-control levee.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is coordinating the rollout of the new emergency warning system, along with the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.
The effort is being assisted by a committee of television and radio broadcasters in Nebraska, the State Emergency Communications Committee, which deals with emergency warnings broadcast over their stations.
Jim Skinner of Omaha, chairman of the committee, said officials want to make sure that WEAs are only issued for truly life-threatening situations.
That's because cellphone users can “opt out” of getting the free warnings, and Skinner said there's a concern that too many alerts would irritate cellphone users and sway them to halt the alerts.
“We want safety, but not irritating alerts,” he said. “Only if there's a serious emergency in your neighborhood will you get a warning.”
Amber Alerts are an exception. They automatically go statewide, according to Sgt. Jeromy McCoy of the Nebraska State Patrol. Saturday's alert also was broadcast in South Dakota, because the suspected abductors were seen driving toward that state.
Only newer cellphones have the technology to receive the WEAs, Skinner said, but even newer and less-expensive flip phones can get the messages.
He said WEAs have an advantage over regular text messages in that they have special priority and will be sent even if regular text messages are overloading cellphone systems, such as in an emergency.
Lewis, the Buffalo County official, said his county had a voluntary system in which residents can sign up to get emergency alerts. But the federal WEA system is better: It will notify everyone within the selected area, regardless of whether they signed up or not, regardless if they are from the local area or traveling through.
The text messages, Lewis said, are “one more tool in our toolbox to notify people of a dangerous situation.”