Emergency 'text-like' alert system to be launched in D.C., NYC

WASHINGTON (AP, ABC7) – Federal officials are setting up an emergency alert system to warn people of natural disasters, terrorist attacks and other emergencies. The system would allow officials to send information about a crisis directly to people’s cell phones.

“We need to adapt to what the public is using, not make them fit traditional systems,” said FEMA administrator Craig Fugate.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made the announcement Tuesday at a news conference overlooking the World Trade Center site. He says the new technology will give the public clear and accurate information about imminent safety threats.

The mayor says it will be geographically targeted and send messages to all cellphone users. The alert plan was approved by Congress in 2006 under the Warning Alert and Response Network Act.

After more than five years of planning, the national emergency alert system is set to launch in New York City and Washington by the end of year.

“Since we use our phones all the time, a lot of people are not looking at the news,” said D.C. resident David Morgan. “That way if we get an alert, we know, so a lot of people are not caught of guard.”

Messages will go through even if networks are congested, officials say

Reaching people in the midst of disasters such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when cell phone networks were overwhelmed or otherwise out of service, has been an ongoing concern for emergency personnel around the country.

Those who were in Washington on that day remember the lack of information about what was happening.

“Back on Sept. 11, we didn't know things until it was like way too late,” said Lenn Palma. “And by the time we got out and tried to use a cell phone we couldn't get through.”

Messages are expected to get through even if traditional phone lines are swamped.

"Network congestion in times of major disasters is a real issue," Genachowski said. "This plan ... makes sure emergency alerts can get through even if the network is congested."

System reserved for “highest levels of alerts”

Local and state governments have been increasingly turning to text messages to alert residents to everything from snow days closing schools to traffic blocking local roadways. But the volume of messages can be overwhelming or too late to be of much help.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski and Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate said the new national system will be selective in what it sends out.

"These are really focused on the highest levels of alerts, and those that require urgent action," Fugate said. Genachowski added that officials expect the alerts "to be very limited."

There will be at least three levels of messages:

- Presidential Alerts Warning of national emergencies such as terrorist attacks
- Imminent Threats such as hurricanes or tornadoes
- AMBER Alerts for missing or abducted children

People will be able to opt out of receiving all but the presidential alerts, Genachowski said.

A special chip is required to allow the phone to receive the messages, and starting next all new phones will have the technology. Some smart phones already have the chip and software updates will be available when the network goes online later this
year, Genachowski said.

Alert will show up on phones’ home screen

Fugate said cell phones turned on in the direct vicinity of a disaster - an evacuation zone, for instance - would receive a message warning them of the impending danger. The alert would show up on the phone's front screen, instead of the traditional text message inbox, and arrive with a distinct ring and likely a vibration.

With reporting by the Associated Press from New York.