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Emergency alerts to ping phones, Web sites

We interrupt your cell phone call with this important announcement: The government will soon be sending warnings of national emergencies on wireless phones, Web sites and hand-held computers.
/ Source: The Associated Press

We interrupt your cell phone call with this important announcement: The government will soon be sending warnings of national emergencies on wireless phones, Web sites and hand-held computers.

The new digital system will update the emergency alerts planned — but never used — during the Cold War in the event of a nuclear strike. More likely, these 21st-century technologies will carry warnings of natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

The Homeland Security Department, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, expects to have the system working by the end of next year. Though still in its pilot stages, the system is being demonstrated Wednesday at a public television station in suburban Virginia.

The Association of Public Television Stations is partnering with FEMA to transmit the alerts to receiving networks ranging from wireless devices, cable TV channels and satellite radio to traditional broadcast outlets.

"Anything that can receive a text message will receive the alert," Homeland Security Department spokesman Aaron Walker said Tuesday. "We find that the new digital system is more secure, it's faster and it enables us to reach a wide array of citizens and alert them to pending disasters."

In 1951, President Harry Truman created the nation's first alert system, which required radio stations to broadcast only on certain frequencies during emergencies. That evolved into the test on TV and radio stations that solemnly intoned: "This is a test of the emergency broadcast system. This is only a test."

Only the president can order a national emergency alert. The system was initially designed to warn Americans of a nuclear attack, but President Bush last month ordered Homeland Security to extend the alert "for situations of war, terrorist attack, natural disaster or other hazards to public safety and well-being."

The public TV stations have so far raised $1.1 billion — a third of it from the federal government — to convert antiquated technology at its 176 stations to digital systems that can transmit the alerts, APTS President John Lawson said.

Overall, the new warning system is expected to cost $5.5 million to test and deploy nationally, and $1 million annually to maintain, Walker said.

The government has been testing the system in the Washington area since October 2004, Lawson said, and earlier this year expanded its pilot program to 23 public television stations nationwide. It will be rolled out to the public and emergency responders in stages, beginning in Gulf Coast states that were heavily damaged by hurricanes last year, and later in major cities.

Peter P. Swire, chief privacy counselor during the Clinton administration and law professor at the Ohio State University, questioned whether the alerts might "be like spam or a telemarketing call" to people who don't want to receive the government warnings.

"Before the broadcast happens, people should likely have a choice whether to receive it," Swire said.

Walker said consumers will have a chance to opt out of the alerts.

Some glitches remain as telephone companies and other networks grapple with potentially trying to alert all of their customers at the same time without jamming their systems, Lawson said. But the alerts could be transmitted by text messages, audio recordings, video or graphics, he said, opening the possibility of sending out additional detailed information to specific sectors, like hospitals or emergency responders.

For alerting regular Americans, "we're hoping that your cell phone will go off saying something bad is happening, and you need to get to a TV or radio to find out what's going on," Lawson said.