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Feds, Carriers Unveil Mobile Emergency Alert System

Mobile phone users in New York City and Washington will be the first to have access to the system, which will push out alerts during emergencies.

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The federal government has teamed up with wireless carriers and New York City officials to unveil a new emergency alert system that will notify people of potentially hazardous situations on their mobile devices.

In an event at the still under-construction World Trade Center site in New York, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator W. Craig Fugate, and top executives from leading U.S. wireless carriers unveiled the Personal Localized Alerting Network, or PLAN, a free, geographically specific service for wireless customers.

"One of the many lessons that were reinforced on 9/11 is the importance of getting clear and accurate information to the public--that's why we've made improving our emergency public communications a top priority," Bloomberg said. "As part of this effort, we're harnessing tech in innovative new ways, which is something I found to be effective in both business and government for improving service delivery."

In the event of an emergency in which people's safety is threatened--such as a terrorist attack or a deadly storm--PLAN will send alerts to people's mobile devices to notify them of the threat, officials said. The service will be available in New York and Washington by the end of the year, and will roll out nationally in April 2012.

PLAN will work alongside the current Emergency Alert System, which will continue to notify people in the event of emergencies via traditional broadcast means, such as radio and television. But that system, while still relevant, does not keep up with the technology that has become a ubiquitous part of nearly everyone's lives, Fugate said.

"We shouldn't make you fit our traditional systems [of emergency alert]," he said. "Most of us have a cell phone that, in a situation where an emergency is taking place, may be the best way to get ahold of you. We need to adapt to what the public is using."

A key aspect of PLAN is that it will create a "fast lane" for emergency alerts so they can bypass wireless network congestion, Genachowski said. This was a key problem people had when trying to use their mobile phones to contact loved ones and receive information during the terrorist attack in New York on 9/11.

The FCC chairman was living and working in New York on that day, which gave him a "deep appreciation for the necessity of communications technologies," he said.

The majority of mobile devices currently don't have the software to support PLAN. But the major wireless carriers in the U.S.--Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile--will begin introducing devices to support PLAN by the end of this year, they said. The FCC will unveil a list of devices that support PLAN in the coming months, Bloomberg said.

Once devices support the system, wireless carriers automatically sign people up for it if they have a PLAN-capable device. However, they will receive the alerts from participating wireless carriers--who receive them first from emergency first responders--only if their cell phones are turned on and they have a signal when an alert is sent, officials said.

People will receive three kinds of alerts from PLAN in the event of a situation that warrants them: alerts issued by the president; alerts warning them of imminent threats to their lives; and Amber Alerts about missing children. People can block the second and third types of alerts if they so choose, but not alerts from the president, officials said.

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