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Emergency Alert System Uses Cellphones in Specific Areas

Tom Stroup of Reston's SquareLoop is working on technology that would broadcast emergency warnings to all cellphones in a specific location.
Tom Stroup of Reston's SquareLoop is working on technology that would broadcast emergency warnings to all cellphones in a specific location. (By Don Chernoff)
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By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 7, 2008

A year ago, a fire broke out in one of the five oil refineries in Contra Costa County in Northern California, spewing fumes into the air in Richmond.

Local officials wanted to send cellphone message alerts to everyone near the fire. But they could only reach, through a statewide system, the mobile phones of people who had registered their street addresses and phone numbers, and would miss visitors.

"Not everybody in Richmond [that day] lived in Richmond. . . . This is a very mobile society," said Art Botterell, manager of Contra Costa's community warning system. "We need the ability to send these messages very precisely for them to be of any value."

An agreement with a Reston start-up called SquareLoop may bring Contra Costa a step closer to having that capability. Through a partnership with Sprint Nextel scheduled to be announced today, SquareLoop will send location-based text messages to cellphones throughout the county in the event of an emergency.

The move toward geographically targeted emergency alerts is being encouraged by policymakers in Washington. A 2006 law requires the Federal Communications Commission to identify ways to provide location-based emergency text alerts for cellular handsets. The agency is expected to post guidelines this year for the deployment of that capability.

But finding one solution for all cellphones is not going be easy.

"You have different capabilities of the various devices of the various carriers," said Bruce Lee, manager of industry solutions in Sprint's public-sector division. "There's a lot that has to be agreed upon."

Cellphones now feature mapping software that can show people their exact location, and many cars carry GPS navigational devices. But telecommunications companies have yet to come up with a way to send locally relevant information -- whether emergency alerts or advertisements -- to a phone without tracking a user and sacrificing privacy.

"Everybody has their own perspective on being tracked," said Tom Stroup, SquareLoop's chief executive, a 25-year industry veteran. "Some are very skeptical of the government or anybody else knowing their whereabouts at all times."

SquareLoop has been testing its software for years, and Contra Costa is its first customer. If successful, the service could expand, and the firm is looking to sign partnerships with other wireless carriers. Several other companies, including some in the D.C. area, have also developed emergency message products.

For now, the company's service is optional and only works if users download the SquareLoop software to their cellphones. Contra Costa officials will post installation instructions on the county's Web site and elsewhere.

The company's software records a phone's approximate location every 15 minutes by using wireless towers as geographic landmarks to triangulate the phone's position.

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