Government Looks to Strengthen Mobile Emergency Notification System

Carl Weinschenk

Telecommunications is front and center when the unexpected happens. It was an important element of the 911 story, and resurfaced in the Hurricane Katrina debacle. While the most attention understandably was paid to first responders' communications with each other, keeping the public informed also is important. A robust and reliable system of alerting the public also is important for more common events, such as fuel spills, localized heavy weather and Amber alerts.


The patchwork system being used today isn't adequate, and it's good to see that something is being done. Government Computer News reports that the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are rolling out the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), which bring cellular devices under the umbrella of the Emergency Alert System (EAS). The idea is that the proliferation of telecommunications platforms and devices makes keeping in touch with folks far more complex than it was a generation ago. That's a bit scary, given that this wasn't done very well back then.


GNC says that specs may be ready as soon as October. This would start the clock on a 28-month ramp up for cellular carriers to procure and install equipment. CMAS was mandated under the Warning, Alert and Response Network Act, which is part of the SAFE Port Act of 2006. It would initially use the short message service format, but go beyond current systems. Three levels of alerts would be offered: presidential alerts, Amber alerts and alerts connected to life and property threats. Vocal and video messages may eventually be offered, the story says.

This expert commentary lauds the project. The post says that 79 stakeholders attended a DHS forum at the end of last month. The idea is to bypass the security and delivery problems that can inhibit the effectiveness of SMS. Two levels of the system-Amber alerts and those signaling danger-will be opt-outs, meaning that subscribers' can requests to not participate, though they initially will be enrolled. The presidential-level alerts will be mandatory, the post says.


Judging just from activity this week, there is no shortage of are parallel efforts. For instance, Boulder County, CO said that residents can opt into a program to get alerts about emergencies via cell phones, traditional phones, VoIP and SMS. Everbridge announced that Connecticut will use its Aware emergency notification system to alert people of problems on their mobile phones, BlackBerries and via e-mail, SMS and instance messaging. The system goes live on Sept. 1. Finally, The University of Florida is testing ConnectED, a replacement system emergency notification system.

It will be interesting to see how these and other efforts are reconciled with the federal initiatives. In any case, it's good to see that efforts are being made to keep people informed.

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