Federal officials and leaders of the nation’s largest wireless telephone companies are set to announce Tuesday that they’re launching a new mobile telephone emergency alert system ahead of schedule in Washington and New York.
The Personal Localized Alerting Network, or PLAN, won’t be available across the rest of the country until April, but top executives from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon are scheduled to join Federal Communications Commissioner Julius Genachowski , Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator W. Craig Fugate and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York on Tuesday to announce its availability in the two cities.
A separate announcement in Washington will be held at a later date, according to an FCC spokesman.
“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,” Genachowski said in an interview Monday.
While authorities plan to continue broadcasting messages across the Emergency Alert System on radio and television, 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.”
Mobile users who currently own or plan to buy newer smartphones and cell phones sold by the four wireless companies would be able to receive the free, text-like messages that would flash across a telephone’s screen and trigger a special vibration, Genachowski said. Once operational, participating federal, state and local agencies would be able to send information regarding only the most serious alerts — including warnings about natural disasters, terrorist attacks or Amber Alerts.
Fugate, who has spent the last few weeks touring deadly tornado damage in southern states, said Monday that if PLAN had been operational, it would have allowed a Washington resident visiting Alabama who owns a mobile phone with a D.C.-based area code to receive warnings about the impending torandoes.
“What this allows us to do is have the phone know where it is at that moment, and if a broadcast goes off in that area, it’ll go to all the phones in that area,” Fugate 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.
The announcement is the latest example of government agencies partnering with cellular companies to to adopt consumer technology for public safety uses. Hundreds of local governments and local law enforcement across the country offer text and e-mail alerts for residents wanting up-to-date information about emergency situations, weather and traffic.
In the Washington region, a dozen cities and five counties use a text-alert notification system.
There was some confusion Monday about the new program. Robyn Johnson, a spokeswoman with the District’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency , said that the agency had not been made aware of PLAN. She said her office already sends text and e-mail alerts to more than 100,000 subscribers about traffic, weather, utility outages and some crimes.
Bloomberg spokesman Stu Loeser said New York plans to take advantage of the system once it’s operational, but said the city had no initial cost estimates. New York already operates Notify NYC, an opt-in alert system that includes text messages and robocalls.
How quickly jurisdictions adopt to new technology depends on their budgets and the current state of their infrastructure. For example, many jurisdictions are looking to upgrade 911 services to digital technology. Across the country the cost of that upgrade over the next 20 years could be $9.1 billion, according to a 2009 Department of Transportation study.
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