Sprint to do emergency text alerts

Your phone might give you the first heads-up on a coming tornado or a gunman on the loose down the block.

Sprint Nextel announced Tuesday it’s launching wireless emergency alerts, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency and more local organizations to use mass text alerts about impending dangers.

Users will have to opt into the alert system that will crank up first in New York City and the District of Columbia before the end of the year. It will work on only a handful of phones the company sells (the HTC Evo, for instance, but not Apple’s iPhone series) and be dispatched in 90-character bursts rather than the 160 limits that restrict most text messages. The alerts will come with a distinctive vibration rhythm and tone intended to mimic alerts people know from radio and television.

The alerts are supposed to be targeted based on a user’s location. So if a Kansas Citian were in New York, for instance, their phone would get a notice about hurricane headed toward Manhattan, but not about a severe storm barreling through the Country Club Plaza.