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Now That the Nationwide EAS Test Has Been Completed, What About Mobile Device Alerts?

Author: Mark Titus, TeleCommunication Systems, Inc.

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-12-23
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The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently completed a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) targeted for the radio, television, cable and satellite broadcast communities. The purpose of the test was to assess the readiness level of emergency broadcast notification systems to transmit a nationwide alert message. The results of the test are currently being analyzed by FEMA and are expected to be presented to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) before the end of 2012.

The audience for the nationwide EAS test was composed of viewers and listeners of radio and TV programming. However, with today’s increasingly mobile society, many users have come to rely on their mobile device as a primary means of communication during an emergency event. So, what about alerting the public via mobile devices?

Short Message Service (SMS) Text Messaging During Emergencies

Today, text messages have become a reliable means of communicating during emergency events. The FEMA Web site tells consumers that voice networks may be congested after a disaster, so sending a text message or e-mail to loved ones to let them know you’re OK is an option to consider. Unlike a voice call requiring dedicated circuits to be established during the entire duration of the call, SMS messages are packetized and are delivered within seconds, given available resources. Moreover, in the case of a network resource shortage, SMS can be queued up for redelivery if first attempts fail. Text messaging alerts today are typically based on a user request or opt in. Message notification is based on a pre-defined area of interest that a mobile user will register or subscribe to.

During the August 2011 Mid-Atlantic earthquake and Hurricane Irene, people turned to their mobile devices to reach out to family and friends in addition to receiving news feeds from social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. This ability to rapidly provide mass notification to mobile subscribers is a key component of the next-generation EAS and is known as the Commercial Mobile Alerts System (CMAS) or Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN).

Current Plans for Rolling Out CMAS to Consumers

CMAS is a new public safety system that allows consumers who own an enabled mobile device to receive geographically-targeted, text-like messages that will alert them of imminent safety threats in their area. This system follows them wherever they go and does not require previous knowledge of a ZIP code or advance registration.

Unlike standard mobile voice and texting services, CMAS ensures that emergency alerts will not get stuck in highly congested user areas. CMAS enables government officials to target emergency alerts to specific geographic areas through cell broadcast towers, which send the information to dedicated receivers in CMAS-enabled mobile devices. Suppliers of this alerting technology, such as TeleCommunication Systems, are helping participating wireless carriers to meet the FCC’s rules and requirements to deploy CMAS technology by April 7, 2012.

How does CMAS alerting work?

  • Authorized national, state or local government officials send an alert regarding public safety emergencies such as a tornado or imminent terrorist attack to FEMA.
  • FEMA authenticates the alert and sends it to participating wireless carriers.
  • Participating wireless carriers then send the alerts via their cell towers to mobile phones in the affected area. The alerts appear like text messages.

CMAS Features that Users Can Expect

CMAS technology will provide key alerting features to subscribers that differ from conventional systems in use today. These include:

  • Geographically Targeted Alerts: A consumer who lives in New York would not receive a threat alert specific to that area if he or she happens to be in Chicago when the alert is sent. However, someone visiting New York from Chicago on that same day would receive the alert, assuming the consumer has a CMAS-enabled mobile device and his or her wireless carrier participates in CMAS.
  • Consumers Automatically Signed Up: CMAS allows government officials to send emergency alerts to all wireless subscribers with CMAS-enabled mobile devices, as long as their wireless carriers participate in the program. Consumers do not need to sign up for this service.
  • Alerts at No Cost: Consumers do not pay to receive CMAS alerts.
  • Covers Only Critical Emergency Alerts: Consumers will receive only three types of alerts from CMAS: 1) alerts issued by the President; 2) alerts involving imminent threats to safety or life; and 3) Amber Alerts. Participating carriers may allow subscribers to block all but the Presidential alerts.
  • Unique Signal and Vibration: A CMAS alert will be accompanied by a unique attention signal and vibration, which is particularly helpful to people with hearing- or vision-related disabilities.

 

CMAS uses life-saving technology that is expected to reach vast numbers of mobile devices in a fast and efficient manner. As we build on lessons learned from the recent EAS test, both suppliers and wireless carriers will soon be ready to transmit a similar CMAS test message to reach the nearly 300 million mobile subscribers here in the U.S.

Mark Titus is vice president of messaging product management for TeleCommunication Systems, Inc., a world leader in highly reliable and secure mobile communication technology. To learn more about emerging and innovative wireless technologies, visit http://www.telecomsys.com

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