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FCC greenlights text message emergency alert system

There's plenty of red tape ahead, but when program is finalized, participating carriers' customers will get texts warning of nearby tornadoes or missing children.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a plan on Thursday to team up with wireless carriers for emergency text message alerts.

Cellular service providers can opt into the new system, called the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS); then, their customers will receive three varieties of text message from a not-yet-specified government agency.

There will be "presidential alerts" for major national emergencies like terrorist attacks, "imminent threat alerts" for localized emergencies like hurricanes and tornadoes, and Amber Alerts for missing children--which have been broadcast to cell phones since 2005.

A release from the agency hinted that as mobile technology evolves, audio and video alerts may be implemented as well.

"No one questions the value that an effective Commercial Mobile Alert System will have on the safety and welfare of the American public," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said in a statement issued Thursday, admitting that there is not yet a federal agency in place to handle the messages (PDF).

When there is, carriers that choose to participate will have 10 months to comply with the FCC's rules. "We are hopeful that we have initiated the dialogue that will allow an appropriate federal entity to assume that central role in an expeditious manner."

CNN reported that T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, and AT&T indicated that they would be likely to sign up for the FCC's system.

Meanwhile, nongovernment groups like have also embarked upon projects to use text messaging, as well as services like Twitter, for both disaster awareness and rescue.