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Cellphones to get disaster alerts

Federal plan will be launched in NYC, Washington

Associated Press / May 10, 2011

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WASHINGTON — After more than five years of planning, a national emergency alert system that will send messages to cellphones during disasters is set to be launched in New York City and Washington by the end of year.

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Julius Genachowski, said the Commercial Mobile Alert System will direct messages to cellphones in case of a terrorist attack, natural disaster, or other serious emergency. The plan was approved by Congress in 2006.

Genachowski and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s administrator, Craig Fugate, said the new system will be selective. “These are really focused on the highest levels of alerts, and those that require urgent action,’’ he said.

There will be at least three levels of messages, ranging from a critical national alert from the president to warnings about impending or occurring national disasters to alerts about missing or abducted children. People will be able to opt out of receiving all but the presidential alerts.

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

Fugate said cellphones turned on in the 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 probably a vibration.

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.’’