Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Obama could send text-message warnings directly to your mobile

FEMA announced that the US Government is introducing a new emergency alert system, which is an expansion of the Federal Communications Commission's existing emergency alert system, which is designed to broadcast warnings over radio and television.The new system called PLAN (Personal Localized Alerting Network), instead of broadcasting alerts via radio and TV, will send text messages directly to mobile phones.

Nokia Siemens BTS
PLAN enables government officials to target alerts to specific geographic areas. Messages will be sent to mobile devices based on their geographic location determined by BTS (base transceiver station). No need for GPS support will be required - all cell phones in the range of base stations located in the area will receive SMS with warning message (actually SMS-CB).

This solution (SMS to be sent to all phones in targeted area) is actually the simplest and the most effective in emergency communications. Existing means of alerting people of immediate danger like warning horns, sirens, public address system with loudspeakers, TV or radio broadcast are not always efficient. Horns or announcements may be mistaken with non-crucial "background" voice or some people may just not hear the alert sound. The best example is Japan's tsunami where many people were not alerted on time, despite the fact that alert about tsunami has reached emergency centers 30 (!) minutes before tsunami reached the shoreline.

PLAN allows national, state or local government officials in the US send alerts regarding public safety emergencies, such as a tornado, tsunami or a terrorist threat without delay. Thanks to the possibility to alert mobile phones in the affected areas only, we make sure, that alerts will not create unnecessary panic and people will not start ignoring alerts as irrelevant.

What is also very important, GSM or CDMA based emergency alert systems are relatively cheap if compared to traditional warning systems based on the several layers of bureaucracy and 20th century traditional technologies. Alerting systems based on short-messages are also easy to deploy in a very short time. 

I must say, that I'm very happy that such system will be finally implemented at least in the United States. Few years ago I tried to convince authorities from European Commission as well as representatives of at least three European governments to build similar system.  Unfortunately, instead of focusing on the project similar to "PLAN", European Commission decided to start implementation of the eCall system (automatic notification of motor crashes). The main reason behind implementation of eCall was to... follow the US deployment of ACN. As the result, European Union countries neither have working eCall/ACN nor the Short Message Service-Cell Broadcast-based public alerting system like PLAN.

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