Wireless alerts on your cellphone

On April 9th the FCC adopted rules in keeping with the WARN (Warning, Alert, and Response Network) Act of 2006, extending emergency alerts to wireless carriers. The Commission opened a docket (04-296) on the subject in 2004, pre-Katrina and pre-Virginia Tech, but both lent urgency to the task.

“Participating” wireless carriers will carry emergency alerts in three categories:

– Presidential Alerts – national emergency-related alerts delivered to the American public that would preempt any other pending alerts;
– Imminent Threat Alerts – alerts with information on emergencies that may pose an imminent risk to people’s lives or well-being; and
– Child Abduction Emergency/AMBER Alerts – alerts related to missing or endangered children due to an abduction or runaway situation.

In my view “Imminent Threat” (a hazmat plume? a train crash? a Cessna in the wrong air space?) leaves some gray area for interpretation and many municipalities, such as San Francisco and Contra Costa, are proceeding with their own initiatives.

The underlying assumption behind all this is that the age where the bulk of the population could be reached through their TV or radio has ended. ~85% of the US population carries a cellphone with them at all times. For college students, this figure is probably around 100%, hence the relevance of wireless alerts during an incident like Virginia Tech.

This assumes that wireless networks will stay operational during times of duress and heavy network load, which was not the case during 9/11, the Northeast blackout, and Katrina. This was one reason a working group was created at the FCC to determine what kind of alerts would be carried and in what format, as the carriers were worried about network burden if sending out massive amounts of text-based alerts (along with vibrating and visual notification for the hearing impaired.) The FCC has required carriers to have back-up power of 8 hours, which was the subject of an earlier post.

Linking to a past contributed article on the subject of wireless alerts and location.

The FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau is holding a summit on the subject of Promoting an Effective Emergency Alert System on the Road to a Next Generation EAS on May 19.

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