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Saved by the Cell

Emergency alerts of bad weather or terror attacks could be sent to cell phones of people in the affected areas
October 6, 2004

Where will you be when the next weather emergency hits your area? Or, God forbid, when the next terrorist attack occurs? If youre away from a radio or television, there will likely be a lag time between when the emergency hits and when you become aware of it, and in the worst case scenarioa tornado bearing down your neighborhood, saythat lag can have disastrous consequences. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wants to get emergency alerts to people wherever they are.

Starting October 1, the organization is leading a six-month pilot program to upgrade the existing Emergency Alert System to include the capability to dispatch these types of alerts to cell phones, pagers, and network-enabled PDAs carried by people within the affected area. If a tornado was spotted in your county, for example, youd get a text message emergency alert on your cell phone. Getting the standards-splintered cell phone industry to agree on a single approach, however, may prove difficult.

Most people are familiar with the existing Emergency Alert System; its what the television networks use to run the band of scrolling text alerting viewers to weather emergencies. Other people may be familiar with it as the source of the annoying 60-second monotone testing program: This is a test of the Emergency Broadcasting System. This is only a test. This alert signal originates from a FEMA operations center in Washington, DC, and is broadcast to 34 radio and television stations around the country, which then relay the signal to affiliates. A more recent application for the technology is the Amber Alert system aimed at thwarting child abductions by broadcasting the suspected perpetrators license information and vital statistics along with information and photographs of the child.

The FEMA test will focus on the Washington area initially, according to Reynold Hoover, director of the agencys office for National Security Coordination. FEMA received a $10 million grant in fiscal year 2004 to explore the possibilities; Hoover says additional money has been allocated for fiscal 2005.

The pilot program is relying on digital spectrum bandwidth donated by the Association for Public Television Stations. Cellular service providers such as AT&T Wireless, T-Mobile, Cingular, and Verizon Wireless will be able to receive the signal, with the plan being that theyll then transmit the information to their subscribers. Hoover says the organization is reaching out to the cellular network providers to participate in the program.

And its there that the program has hit its first snag. While all the network providers I spoke with said they supported the effort, they were quick to point out their concern that such an undertaking be done in a measured, researched manner, and gradually rolled out. At the top of their initial concerns is the effect on their networks of sending hundreds of thousandsif not millionsof simultaneous text messages to users in a specific area. Certainly theres been a lot of discussion about how to enact a variety of alert services, says John Walls, spokesperson for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. But theres concern about network overload and doing it in a manageable, reasonable way so as not to affect the integrity of the network.

One small company has decided to start testing on its own. Airadigm Communications, a cellular service provider in Little Chute, WI, has already run a pilot test for dispatching emergency messages, and could serve as an example for how the industry might approach emergency message dispatches. In mid-September, Greg Selig, Airadigms director of operations and engineering, oversaw the disbursement of a short text message to about 20 people. It was straightforward, he claims, with the ability to receive such messages built into the specifications for the GSM standarda popular technology on which many of todays newer cell phones run. Were confident that we could send it to our entire market, he says. Were already discussing another test.

FEMAs Hoover has heard of the Airadigm test and is interested in seeing what they did, but so far has not made contact with the company. Over the next six months, however, FEMA hopes to demonstrate to the cellular network providers how little the strain to the network from such a program would actually be. We think it will show there are no technology barriers to making this happen, says Hoover.

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