Disaster Alert System to Save Lives... With Text Messages


In the wake of the second deadliest twister outbreak that swept across seven states in late April, more details are being released about the proposed Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) that would alert the public via messages on their mobile devices when disaster was near.

As part of the Warning Alert and Response Network Act proposed in 2006 as part of the Warren Act, the CMAS is currently being developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and is expected to be up and running by 2012.

The alert system will have three types of messages to be sent out to the public via mobile phones: Presidential Level, Imminent Threat, and Wireless Amber Alert. Because the messages aren’t standard text messages, there is no fee associated with them, and consumers can opt out of the two lower-level alerts. However, many consumers will need a new mobile phone to receive the alert.

“It’s been a long and involved process,” says Brian Josef, assistant vice president for regulatory affairs at CTIA, the international association for the wireless telecommunications industry. “One of our main concerns was that these alerts would become like the car alarm syndrome--incessant and unnecessary. The first thing we did is make sure there are strong controls on how these alerts function and that things aren’t just sent willy nilly.”

The emergency messages must go through several steps of authentication and verification before they are sent out, Josef says, and only one type of message is sent on a national basis: The first level of alert, known as “Presidential Level,” it is sent out to the entire U.S.

“I’m actually cringing at the thought of what kind of disaster would rise to the level of the president sending out that alert,” Josef says. “Hopefully, you’ll never see one of those.”

“Presidential Level” alerts will be sent out by all cellular carriers and consumer cannot opt out of these alerts.

The second-level “Imminent Threat” messages alert citizens to an imminent threat to life or property, such as a tornado or hurricane, and would be sent out on the local level by the state or county government. You can opt out of these, but Josef wouldn’t advise it.

The third-level  “Wireless Amber Alert” message, which is also sent out by local governmental agencies, and will alert the public to any kidnapped children in their area. The message will include a description of the child and information on where the child may be headed.

The Warren Act prohibits wireless carriers from charging for any of these alerts. To ensure delivery, these messages are transmitted on an entirely different operating channel than normal text messages.

“Text messages today were never meant to be robust immediate communication,” says Josef. “They can be subject to latency, get delayed, or not go through at all.”

The CMAS will use “broadcast messages” that reach cellular phones found in a certain geographical area; even if you have a cell phone with a Kansas area code and you’re in Texas, you’ll receive disaster alerts for Texas. It’s like a radio signal: Just as your radio picks up the stations closest to you at the time, your phone will pick up the alert being broadcast closest to your location.

Sprint (NYSE:S) is the only carrier to test the alert message system to date because it is the only domestic wireless carrier that makes phones with the required chip designed to receive the emergency messages.

“Our network doesn’t have the traffic congestion of regular SMS [text] messages that are sent out one-by-one,” says Terry Beaudoin, Sprint’s client executive for the California. Sprint has already run trials of the technology in San Diego, with what Beaudoin calls, “good results.”

“Just like there is a chip in your phone that receives a text message and knows it’s a text as opposed to an e-mail or a call, this little chip will know when you get an emergency alert. Because these alerts are on a separate system, they won’t clog the traditional SMS system,” says Beaudoin. “But they’ll look just like a text.”

Interestingly, the new chip—which will legally be required to be in all new phones made as of 2012—doesn’t just receive messages, it also makes an ear-splitting emergency noise, which you can’t mute.

“Remember the noise that you used to hear on TV when there would be severe weather or when they were doing a test of the emergency broadcast system?” asks Beaudoin. “That’s the same exact tone that’s going to come out of your phone so there will be no doubt there’s an emergency.”

Currently, Sprint sells two phones that contain the CMAS chip, and is manufacturing others. The chip will not make phones cost more, according to Beaudoin, and the phones you have now will not be required to be retrofitted with the technology. However, all phones purchased post-2012 will contain the chip--no matter the wireless carrier.

Beaudoin says that development for technology like this really amped up in 2007, following the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech that claimed 32 lives.

“Kids started getting info on the shooting from friends on Twitter and Facebook,” Beaudoin says. “They shouldn’t be getting it from Twitter and Facebook, they should be getting it from us. You combine that tragedy with everything that’s happened recently with earthquakes, tornadoes and tsunamis, and we’re hyper sensitive. This CMAS is something that needs to happen.”

The FCC outlined the requirements of the alert system and the standards for building the technology, and Sprint has subcontracted with Alcatel Lucent to make compliant phones. Other cellular carriers are following suit, each investing millions of dollars to get the system up and running.

As for what’s ahead, all three major cellular carriers, AT&T (NSYE:T), T-Mobile, and Sprint,  have agreed to test the technology in seven major cities in 2012. Once those seven cities are up and running, others will follow, and as more people purchase CMAS-enabled phones, the network will grow exponentially, Beaudoin says.

Since most people don’t leave the house without their cellular phones these days, CTIA’s Josef says a move to make mobile devices the first point of contact in the event of an emergency only makes sense. He stressed that while phone-based alerts are not meant to be a replacement for watching the news; every alerting and notification service has its advantages.

“The goal is to reach every affected demographic ,  from the 11 year old to the 81 year old,” Josef says. “Someone in town may hear a siren, others may be driving down the road and hear it on their radio, but a lot of them will be looking at their phones. If you’re on the beach and there’s a tsunami coming, all you need are a few people getting that text to motivate everyone to run to safety.”