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by Rick Wimberly: Best practices for emergency notification programs

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Personal Localized Alerting Network Just Touches the Surface
May 11, 2011
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Yesterday's announcement that cell broadcast alerts will be available soon in New York City just touches the surface of a comprehensive plan.  FEMA, the FCC, the Mayor of New York and cellular company executives announced that a program called PLAN, Personal Localized Alerting Network, will be launched in NYC late this year.  As the program matures, mobile device users would receive text alerts about imminent threats, Amber Alerts and Presidential messages.

A number of important points:

1.  The word "launch" is important.  What was announced was that new mobile devices shipped to NYC will soon be equipped to receive the alerts.  That doesn't mean that all mobile devices will receive them...only new ones from participating carriers.  (Most major carriers are participants.)   Most old devices (including the one I bought last month) won't be equipped to receive the alerts.  I wouldn't receive them anyway, unless I was in NYC. 

2.  The new program will send alerts to devices in geographic areas, rather than relying on users to sign up and indicate the areas about which they are interested.  (Getting residents to sign up causes heartburn for public safety officials throughout the country.)  Through PLAN, users could opt out of imminent threat and Amber Alerts (although hard to imagine why people would), but not out of Presidential messages.

3.  You can assume that these devices will be shipped elsewhere across the country about the same time (although the deadline for participating carriers to start shipping is mid-2012).  However, other communities haven't made arrangements to activate the alerts while NYC apparently has. This will take time.  Pilots had been previously announced in Florida and California.

4.  The texts will provide limited details.  They will only contain 90 characters, and will not contain URLs to avoid network clogs when lots of people try to hit a web site at the same time.  Plus, use will be very restrictive - imminent threats, Amber Alerts, and Presidential messages.

5.  U.S. Presidents have had ability to send "Presidential messages" to the American public since the mid-fifties through what's now called the Emergency Alert System.  (Virtually everyone knows EAS through the tests and alerts they regularly hear on radio and TV.)  With PLAN in place, the President will have ability to now send messages via text.  

6.  Although Presidential messaging has been available since the fifties, no President has ever used it.  In fact, the system has never been tested on a national basis with alerts originating from the White House, then interrupting TV and radio broadcasts across the country at the same time.  However, the first national EAS test is planned for late this year.  (No word on whether residents of New York City who have new mobile devices will receive the test message via their devices.)  Public over-reaction to the first national EAS test is a possibility.  Outreach is being planned.

7.  The PLAN program is officially known in federal statute as the "Commercial Mobile Alert System" (or CMAS).  Presumably, it was felt that PLAN would be a more user-friendly acronym.

8.  PLAN/CMAS and EAS are part of the FEMA program IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System).  These are not the only elements of IPAWS.  When fully in place, a wide variety of public warning tools would be used.

9.  With exception of Presidential messages (if any are ever issued), IPAWS alerts will originate from local and state officials...not from the federal government.  (Most need for alerts is at state and local level anyway.)  There are still steps that need to occur before local authorities can activate via IPAWS.  One is that local officials will need to obtain official status to be an IPAWS alerting authority.  Training will be required.  Also, the federal government is not providing the tools that local alerting authorities will need to activate IPAWS.  Those will be offered by private companies, most of whom already in the alerting business and are business at work modifying their technologies to work with IPAWS.

10.  This is good stuff, a sign of progress.  But, let's not be naive about the amount of work that needs to be done in order to realize the vision of enhanced emergency alerting across the nation.

All the best,



Galain Solutions, Inc. is the nation's premier independent consulting firm aimed at helping public safety agencies evaluate, implement and integrate effective emergency notification solutions and programs. For more information, visit www.galainsolutions.com.




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