Federal government puts emergency ‘PLAN’ into action

When residents near the Texas coast were ordered to evacuate their homes while Hurricane Rita barreled through in 2005, they had nowhere to go. When students went to class April 16, 2007 at Virginia Tech University, they didn’t know they were heading into danger.

No matter what type of cellphone, PLAN will alert everyone within a cellular tower service area of incoming dangers.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) along with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has developed a new program, PLAN — Personal Localized Alerting Network — that could have helped in both situations. Officials at FEMA and the FCC say it will take several months to implement, but it is scheduled to debut in late 2011 in New York and Washington, D.C. and be available nationwide in spring 2012.

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the coastlines of Mississippi and Alabama in 2005, Congress passed the WARN Act (Warning, Alert and Response Network) that required a more extensive warning system in times of weather or terrorist dangers. The law is designed to funnel alerts to the public from the president, the National Weather Service and local emergency managers. PLAN is the implementation of the WARN Act’s mandate.

PLAN uses geographically targeted text alerts to cellphone users about tornado or terrorist threats in their areas. The messages can be pared down to a single cellular tower service area, alerting all cellular receivers whose wireless companies participate.

The Cell Broadcast technology allows a text or binary message to be defined and distributed to all mobile terminals, such as cellphones, connected to a set of cells. Reverse 911, another emergency notification technology, sends messages point-to-point, relying on a database of phone numbers. Since Cell Broadcast messages are sent point-to-area, one can reach a huge number of terminals at once. In other words, Cell Broadcast messages are directed to radio cells, rather than to a specific terminal.

Another difference between PLAN and Reverse 911: Recipients won’t need to open PLAN alerts like text messages. Instead, the messages simply pop up on the phones. There is no need to register, and emergency alerts will be sent to all users with text-capable devices if their wireless carrier participates.

Meanwhile in Florida, an Emergency Cellular Pilot Test Program was successfully completed in June. Polk, Pasco, Brevard and Orange counties participated in the pilot.

“An emergency alert program needs to be intrusive,” said Pete McNally, Polk County’s Emergency Management director. “It needs to get to people wherever they are, and the way to do that is by cellphone.”
(NACo will conduct a webinar on the PLAN deployment with the FCC later this month or the first week in August.)


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