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Emergency Alerts Coming To New Cellphones

UPDATE! Washington — Cellphones could begin receiving emergency alerts under voluntary technical standards the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted enabling cellphone carriers to transmit such messages from government agencies.

Alerts could be coming to cellphones by 2010, an FCC spokesman said, and would join all-hazard radios, which currently receive such alerts.

To receive the alerts, consumers will have to buy a new phone equipped with a special chip because the service will be a one-to-many broadcast of a text alert, not a typical one-to-one SMS message, said a Verizon Wireless spokesman. If carriers were to send emergency alerts via SMS, Verizon said, they would have to be sent sequentially and could take hours to reach all subscribers who opted in to get the alerts. “We expect to offer this,” the spokesman added, noting that it requires a network upgrade as well.

An FCC spokesman mentioned that “in general, the wireless industry has said that they are supportive of the initiative and are ready to participate.” The next step is for the federal government to choose an agency that will collect and disseminate text alerts to carriers. Once an agency has been designated, carriers that agree to participate in the alert program have 10 months to modify their networks to send the alerts.

“We cannot say when the federal agency will be designated,” an FCC spokesman said, but “the FCC stands ready to work with Congress and other federal agencies to determine this critical aspect of the initiative.” FCC commissioner Michael Copps noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency cited statutory and other reasons for declining to perform the function.

To ensure that people with disabilities get emergency alerts, the FCC adopted rules requiring participating carriers to transmit messages with vibration- and audio-attention signals. It wasn’t clear whether turned-off phones would wake up when an alert is transmitted in the same way that many emergency radios will turn on when an alert is received.

The cellular alert system might eventually include audio and video services to transmit emergency alerts to the public, the FCC noted.

Consumers will get three types of messages via cellphone and other mobile devices from participating carriers:

  • Presidential alerts, which would be national emergency-related alerts that would preempt any other pending alerts;
  • imminent threat alerts of emergencies that might pose an imminent risk to people’s lives or well-being; and
  • Amber alerts of abducted or runaway children.

“Extending the nation’s emergency alert system to mobile phones is an enormous step forward,” Copps said. “Now Americans will be able to receive warnings about dangerous weather and other imminent threats, including man-made threats like a terrorist attack, in their immediate area even if they are not near a television set or radio and even if their electrical power is down.”

The FCC action is required under the 2006 Warning Alert Response Network (WARN) Act. 

Earlier this decade in 2003, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) transformed its national network of NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) broadcast towers to alert citizens not only to severe weather conditions but also to other types of emergencies, including biological, radiological, and chemical hazards; civil emergencies; contagious-disease outbreaks; and Amber alerts. Before then, the NWR network in only a handful of states warned listeners of non-weather-related hazards. The alerts can be received by specially equipped radios and TVs.