Federal officials announced Tuesday that they will launch a new emergency alert system for mobile phones in Washington, D.C. and New York City by the end of the year.
Called the "Personal Localized Alerting Network," or PLAN, the service is backed by the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the four major U.S. wireless carriers -- Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. It promises to quickly dissipate information during an emergency situation.
Most Americans know the emergency broadcast system through its traditional channels: radio and television. But as cellphones become the primary platform through which people receive information -- low- or high-income, urban or rural, the cellphone is ubiquitous -- officials thought including them in their efforts would help them reach more citizens.
Here's how it works: consumers who currently own or plan to buy newer smartphones and cell phones sold by the four major carriers will be able to receive the free message, which appears like a text message on the screen but also activates the phone's vibration mode.
The system will be used by participating federal, state and local agencies to send information about only the most serious alerts, such as warnings about natural disasters, terrorist attacks or AMBER Alerts. Leveraging GPS technology, it will be geographically limited, so only New Yorkers receive updates about their city, and so forth.
Questions remain for the service, such as:
- What about the thousands of Americans out of reach of mobile towers? Do we expect TV or radio to reach them?
- What if the emergency involves the saturation or destruction of mobile towers? (The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York come to mind.) What then?
- What about customers of other mobile carriers, such as Boost Mobile or MetroPCS? Will they be excluded, or included, because their carriers lease space on the major carriers' wireless infrastructure?
Nevertheless, the announcement shows how government agencies are working with the private sector to use technology for public safety.
Photo: Bill Koplitz/FEMA