FCC, FEMA to start mobile phone emergency alert system

System to carry priority message alerts in NYC and DC by Dec. 31, additional areas in April 2012

Mobile phone users would receive geographically targeted federal emergency alerts in priority "pop-up" text messages under a program announced by the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency on May 10.

The free Personal Localized Alerting Network service will be made available voluntarily by carriers that include AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, in coordination with the FCC and FEMA. Those carriers expect to make the service operational for nearly all their subscribers in New York City by Dec. 31, officials said.

Washington, D.C., also is expected to activate a PLAN network for the emergency messages by year’s end, according to a May 9 article in the Washington Post.

Other major cities are expected to join the system by April 2012, along with additional carriers such as Leap, MetroPCS and USCellular, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said May 10.

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Consumers with PLAN-enabled mobile phones would receive the alerts automatically in the targeted geographic area. The 90-character PLAN alerts are different from Short Message Service text messages because they pop up on screen and do not need to be opened like standard SMS text messages. They also are being designed with a distinctive tone and vibration to distinguish them from other text messages, according to the FCC.

Consumers would receive three types of alerts through the system: presidential alerts, imminent alerts of serious threats such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks, and Amber Alerts for missing children. Carriers may give subscribers the option of blocking all but the presidential messages, the FCC and FEMA said in a news release.

The emergency messages would have priority to ensure they would not get stalled by congestion, which might otherwise affect a standard text message or voice-mail message.

The mobile alert program would supplement existing emergency alert and broadcasting systems, adding to the channels that carry emergency messages.

"Given the kinds of threats made against New York City at the World Trade Center, Times Square, and other places popular with visitors and tourists, we'll be even safer when authorities can broadcast warnings to everyone in a geographic area regardless of where they came from or bought their phone," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in the release.

The program is going into effect under the WARN Act of 2006, which required cell phone carriers that choose to participate in PLAN to activate the system by April 2012.

Authorized national, state or local government officials send alerts regarding public safety emergencies, such as a tornado or a terrorist threat, to PLAN. The service would authenticate the alert, verify that the sender is authorized, and send it to participating wireless carriers. Participating carriers would then push the alerts from cell towers to mobile phones in the affected area. The alerts appear like text messages on mobile devices.

PLAN, also called the Commercial Mobile Alert System, is being created through a public-private partnership between the FCC, FEMA and the carriers.

Customers of participating carriers are automatically enrolled in the alert system and don't need to sign up for the alerts.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Government Cyber Insider tracks the technologies, policies, threats and emerging solutions that shape the cybersecurity landscape.


Reader comments

Sun, Oct 12, 2014

no one in the government paid for my phone therefore they should not decide what i should and not have on my phone , while some persons may wish to receive there alerts I think that those who do not wish to should have some way of removing them short of hacking their phones. Now if the federal government wishes to buy my phones , then they can put whatever they wish on them , but until i receive my 600us dollars they can kiss my red blooded behind .

Sun, Dec 9, 2012 SB

Some of you obviously need to work on your reading comprehensions skills. Go back and reread the sentence about how this system was created by the WARN Act of 2006. Yes, this was created by our government, but it was very obviously not created by President Obama. You just end up embarrassing yourselves when you desperately attempt to blame this program on him. Think long and hard about who was president in 2006. Congrats on embarrassing yourselves and contributing to the dumbing down of America.

Mon, May 14, 2012 Mike

Our Govt. is leaning to a Socialist Dictator and we will be getting messages from him to obey him.

Wed, Mar 21, 2012 James woods

So where in the constitution does it say I must listen to someone that occupied the office of the president? Why are mobile companies so quick to bow to 1984, what's in it for them?

Tue, Feb 14, 2012 John Bad Axe, MI

we are a small town with an Estimated Current Population of 7,545, and you're going to tell me that at 1:30 am on Valentines Day night there is a threat of a meteor, terrorist attack, natural disaster, or something else that you need to interrupt our sleep at this hour. Its not enough we are between 670 to 725 miles from the nearest city that our govt is worried about being attacked more-so than ours... they feel the need to wake us up at this crazy hour for absolutely nothing. We should be given the ooption to "opt out" as it is our right to opt in or out and yet, this is forced upon us by our own govt. SO UNFAIR... good night cruel world!!!

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