Emergency Broadcast: Going Mobile


While television remains a pivotal presence in nearly every American household, for tens of millions of Americans, with many more joining them every day, cell phones (particularly data-equipped “smartphones”) are fast becoming the primary conduit of information and communication. Though many businesses and political candidates have assimilated this fact, government emergency communications has been slower to adapt. Until now, emergency broadcast has remained as tethered to the television as it was in 1963 when the current emergency broadcast system began.

That’s about to change. On May 10, 2011 New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate jointly announced a new system called PLAN (the Personal Localized Alerting Network), designed to enable emergency alerts to be pushed to mobile phones on an as-needed basis in pinpointed geographic areas.

The PLAN

Jamie Barnett, chief of public safety and homeland security for the FCC, explained to Homeland Security Today that PLAN had its origins in the Warning Alert and Response Network Act. Approved by Congress in 2006, it created the structure for a Commercial Mobile Alert System regulated by the FCC, under which commercial mobile service providers would be capable of transmitting emergency alerts to their subscribers by April 2012.

“The launch of PLAN was several years in the making,” Barnett recalled. “We’ve been working closely with FEMA and the wireless carriers to make PLAN a system that truly complements our legacy emergency broadcast system and integrates well into the way the public uses their wireless devices.”

An important component of the design of PLAN and a main challenge in ensuring its adoption, according to Barnett, was that it not be perceived as intrusive.

“We wanted to keep PLAN focused on a small number of warnings, only the most critical ones,” he said. “The concern is if you have too many warnings it will become intrusive and annoying and people will tune out.”

Accordingly, cell-phone users will receive only three types of alerts: emergency declarations issued by the president, alerts involving imminent threats to safety of life, and Amber Alerts.

Participating carriers, Barnett added, may allow subscribers to block all but presidential alerts.

Authorized national, state or local government officials will send public safety alerts to PLAN, where they will be verified and authenticated before the alerts are forwarded to participating wireless carriers. The participating carriers will then push the alerts from cell towers to all users in the immediate vicinity of the incidents, where the alerts will appear like text messages on mobile devices.

The messages, Barnett added, will not be affected by network congestion and will not cost the public that receives them or the emergency managers who send them.

The New York pilot program

Joseph Bruno, commissioner of the New York City Office of Emergency Management, which will run the initial implementation of PLAN, believes it will be the first step in a continuous evolution.

“Cell broadcast is clearly the future of notification,” Bruno told Homeland Security Today. “PLAN is a step—I’d say an important step—in the right direction. It moves us toward the ultimate goal, which is to enable us to reach people with critical messages anywhere in proximity to a particular cell tower.”

If the system had been available earlier, Bruno observed, its alerts could have warned residents of two destructive tornadoes that hit the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens last year, killing one woman and causing extensive property damage.

Bruno acknowledged that adoption of PLAN will be a gradual process.

“The roll-out will likely start slowly,” he explained, “as it requires people to buy new phones or upgrade their software to fully participate in the program. In the early days that means it will probably be limited to the more tech-attuned and younger people. But that will steadily change, and I expect adoption will grow surprisingly rapidly once the public understands the benefits.”

While PLAN represents a tipping point in emergency cell broadcast, Bruno believes the role of emergency messaging to cell phones can and will extend beyond the three types of alerts covered by PLAN.

A case in point, he said, is New York City’s own NotifyNYC, currently a voluntary emergency messaging system which, he noted, is “able to target messaging in a very specifically localized way about other types of events that only affect particular areas—traffic blocks, water main breaks, the kind of smaller-scale emergencies that affect limited areas and aren’t life-and-death but are critical to people locally affected.”

He added, “One real benefit New York hopes to provide to the PLAN pilot is to document the way we use protocols to ensure that every piece of information we put out is accurate and appropriate based on the most up-to-the-minute and reliable information directly from incident command. We think these protocols could become a model for cities when they begin adopting PLAN next year and beyond.”

While New York City and Washington, DC, will pioneer PLAN this summer and fall, by next year when all participating wireless carriers have enabled all their new phones to accept PLAN messaging, PLAN will quickly evolve into a national program.

Carriers lead the way

Early signs are that carriers are ahead of the originally proposed schedule.

“We hope and think that carriers see PLAN as something that their consumers want to have,” Barnett added. “Certainly when you consider that no carrier is required by the law to do this, we’ve gotten tremendous buy-in very quickly. In fact the timetable has been sped up. Initially the goal was to have carriers PLAN-enable all their new devices by April 2012. We now believe that will be accomplished by the end of 2011. Carriers have stepped up to the plate.”

Participants that have so far said they will offer PLAN ahead of schedule include AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon.

“PLAN will change the game of emergency alerting,” predicted Barnett. “Just as cell phones are changing how we live, PLAN is designed to change how the government can communicate warnings.”

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