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Mobile Devices To Be Used In Federal Emergency Alert System

May 11, 2011

All mobile phones in the United States will be required to have special chips that allow them to receive text messages warning of imminent danger such as a terror attack or a natural disaster, U.S. officials announced Tuesday.

The Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN) technology will allow the alert messages to take priority over regular phone calls or text messages. This means that even when the system’s capacity is overloaded in a disaster situation, the alerts will always get through, officials say. The messages will appear on the phone’s front screen instead of the traditional text message inbox and will arrive with a distinct ring and a likely vibration.

Critical messages from the president, information in life-threatening situations and Amber Alerts are the only situations in which the new emergency alert system will be used, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a press conference, accompanied by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate.

The new system will launch at the end of this year in New York City and Washington, D.C., with the rest of the U.S. mobile phones receiving the service in the next few years when people start to replace their old phones with new devices that contain the special chips that will deliver the alerts free of charge.

Genachowski said that every wireless carrier is expected to participate. The only opt out available would be for local alerts and Amber Alerts, but presidential alerts are mandatory.

Even with the GPS locator technology turned off, users will be able to receive the alerts if they are within range of one or more cellphone towers that have been selected by authorities. However, if the mobile device is turned off or no reception is available, the message will not be received.

Currently, lack of reception will leave subway riders without the new alert system.  However, Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesperson Aaron Donovan says that a pilot program will be in effect this year, giving a handful of subway stations the capability to receive cellphone reception, and the rest of the networks will receive connections over the next four years.

The subways have always been a target of speculation and multiple terrorist plots over the years. The AP reports that Debbie Hayes, a subway rider, says that she’s been anxious ever since 9/11.

In response to privacy concerns, Fugate says that no location or personal information from the mobile phones will be sent to authorities.

PLAN was approved by Congress in 2006 under the Warning Alert and Response Network Act, reports the AP, allowing private carriers to work with manufacturers to develop the phone chip.

The Associated Press reports that Gilberto Palma, 62-year-old maintenance supervisor in the World Financial Center, which was severely damaged in the 9/11 attacks, says that he thought the alert system was a great idea.

“Everybody’s going to be happy, especially in this area,” he says. “In this building, everybody’s still on alert.”

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