Personal localized emergency alerts coming to smart phones

As part of an update of the national emergency alert system, federal officials announced this week that many smart phone users in New York City and Washington, D.C., would soon be able to receive alerts by 90-character text message in the event of a national or regional emergency. The new system has the support of all the major mobile phone carriers.

Called the Personal Localized Alerting Network, or PLAN, the new system will be a free service that will start later this year (November) for people in New York City and Washington who have compatible phones and are customers of Verizon, AT&T, Sprint or T-Mobile. It will be a prelude to nationwide service that will start as early as next April.

The alerts are another broadband intrusion into the turf of traditional broadcasters. They even mimic the familiar radio and TV broadcast alerts that for decades have advised Americans where to tune in for an emergency message. Now that television ownership has fallen for the first time in 20 years and an estimated 85 percent of Americans over 18 own a mobile phone, many in government are arguing that a national emergency alert system to text cell phones in case of an emergency is essential.

To receive the emergency alerts, users must have mobile phones with a special chip, which is currently included in Apple's iPhone and some higher-end smart phones. The service will also require a software upgrade. The messages, which will come with a special ring and vibration, will appear on the phone's main screen and will not get lost in mailboxes.

The emergency text messages will include alerts issued by the president, information about public safety threats and Amber Alerts for missing children. Text messages will be sent to customers of participating cellphone companies who are in an area affected by the emergency. Users can opt out of any of the alerts except the presidential messages. The messages will be prioritized, meaning they should get through even during times of congested voice calling.

Congress in 2006 ordered the FCC to develop requirements for wireless companies to comply with the new alert system, but provided no funding to state and local agencies to use the system.

"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," said W. Craig Fugate, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Julius Genachowski, chairman of the FCC, told the Washington Post that "the goal is to make sure that in times of real crisis, real emergency, life-saving information can get to people where they are quickly."

While the FCC still plans to continue distributing messages across the Emergency Alert System on radio and television, Genachowski told the newspaper that 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."

Authorized government officials will be able to send emergency text messages to participating wireless companies, which will then use their cell towers to forward the messages to subscribers in the affected area.

A New York City resident who is traveling in Chicago at the time of an emergency in New York would not receive a message; a Chicago resident who is a customer of the same phone company would see the text alert while in New York City, officials said.