FCC to launch disaster alert system for cell phones

Similar to the alerts sent via TV and radio, the new alert system would send text messages to mobile phones of people who need or want to be notified in the event of an emergency.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
2 min read

The Federal Communications Commission is expanding its familiar emergency alert system notifications sent over TV and radio to now include mobile phones.

Dubbing the new service PLAN (Personal Localized Alerting Network), the government would target the alerts in the form of text messages sent to cell phones of people who need or want to be notified in the event of an emergency. Developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), PLAN would allow customers of any participating wireless carrier to turn their phones into personal alert systems.

The service will initially launch in New York City by the end of this year but is expected to roll out nationwide in 2012 through support from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile. To receive the alerts, a mobile phone must be outfitted with a certain hardware chip, typically found in higher-end phones like the newer iPhone, according to The New York Times. A software upgrade is also required.

The alerts will be targeted geographically, so that people will receive notifications of emergencies based on where they live. FEMA promises that the alerts will get through even if the cell towers are jammed with traffic. The alerts will be free of charge and won't require any special sign-up. Users whose phones already come with the new PLAN technology will automatically receive the alerts, though they can opt out at any time.

To pass along the alerts, government officials would send notices concerning public emergencies, such as tornadoes or terrorist threats, according to FEMA. Officials at PLAN would then confirm the alerts and relay them to the wireless carriers, who would then send them out as text messages to residents in the affected areas. Once the system is operational, cell phone users would receive three types of alerts, according to the FCC: 1) alerts issued by the president; 2) alerts involving imminent threats to safety of life; and 3) Amber Alerts.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate, and executives from the major mobile carriers have gathered together today at the site of the World Trade Center to announce PLAN.

"Following the devastating tornadoes in the Southeast, we are witnessing yet again the critical role the public plays as part of our nation's emergency management team," Fugate said in a statement. "Making sure that they get useful and life-saving information, quickly and easily, right on their mobile phones, will help more people get out of harm's way when a threat exists. This new technology could become a lifeline for millions of Americans and is another tool that will strengthen our nation's resilience against all hazards."