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Infallible emergency alerts?

PHOENIX--One of the lessons of Hurricane Katrina is that the emergency alert systems in the United States are not as strong as they need to be.

At the Demo '06 conference here, Azos AI, a Haymarket, Va., start-up showed off what it said is the answer to the problem.

Its GetMeNow and Smart Emergency Alert software for mobile devices is designed to break through broken alert systems. The idea is that a government-issued alert could break through all other traffic on a cell phone with a loud, obvious tone, even when normal communications are down, and give a user an alert that, say, a tornado is coming.

Similarly, the company showed how individual users could send each other priority emergency alerts which would also make a loud insistent tone that could not be missed. Someone abusing the service can be blocked, however, preventing a crying-wolf kind of situation.

It's a great idea, but the problem with the company's service is that it's not at all clear how it works. The idea is that emergency alerts are supposed to break through dysfunctional communications networks and reach mobile phones with the Azos service. But if cell networks go down, it's hard to imagine how the service would be able to receive such alerts.

Further, and more oddly, company partner Shaun McCab ended his presentation here by asking the crowd to imagine an iPod as an emergency alert device. That would be great, but since an iPod has no communications tools, the suggestion was very strange.