Geo-Targeted Emergency Alerts to Cell Phones to Go Live in New York City


By the end of 2011, emergency alerts will be pushed out to many mobile phones in New York City as part of a new service called the Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN). The federal government has been working on making emergency alerts geographically targeted and available on mobile phones, and federal and city officials announced on Tuesday, May 10, that the service would be available in New York City six months before it’s available to the rest of the nation.

PLAN, formerly the Commercial Mobile Alert System, is a free service that will send text-like messages to enabled devices based on the user’s location. According to a FEMA press release, these emergency alerts will not get stalled by user congestion, which can happen with standard mobile voice and texting services. Using cell towers, wireless providers will push the emergency alerts, which are provided by government officials, to the enabled mobile devices in a targeted geographic area.

“Making sure that [people] get useful and life-saving information, quickly and easily, right on their mobile phones, will help more people get out of harm’s way when a threat exists,” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said in a statement. “This new technology could become a lifeline for millions of Americans and is another tool that will strengthen our nation’s resilience against all hazards.”

The plan’s development traces back to 2006 when Congress passed the Warning, Alert and Response Network Act that requires carriers that choose to participate in PLAN to activate the technology by the FCC’s deadline of April 2012. Wireless carriers participating in New York City are AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. Ninety percent of New York City subscribers who have a PLAN-capable mobile device will be able to receive the alerts by the end of the year, according to the FCC announcement. PLAN will push out messages of 90 characters or fewer in three types of alerts: alerts issued by the president, alerts involving imminent threats to safety of life, and Amber Alerts.

According to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s statement, participating carriers are including PLAN chips in new phones, and many recently purchased phones already have the chip and only will require a software upgrade.

Authorities will continue sending messages through the existing Emergency Alert System, but The Washington Post reported that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said PLAN “is a major step in recognizing that more and more people are using their mobile devices to communicate, and that it’s often the fastest way to get information to someone.”

But one important component that may be lacking is funding. The Post article said, “Congress in 2006 ordered the FCC to develop requirements for wireless companies to comply with the new alert system, but it provided no funding to state and local agencies to use the system once it became available.” Although the technology will be available, it may take time for governments to enlist it.

Numerous sources also reported that PLAN is scheduled to go live in Washington, D.C., before it’s enlisted nationwide.


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