After more than five years of planning, a national emergency alert system that will send messages to cellphones during disasters is set to launch in New York City and Washington by the end of year.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said Monday the Commercial Mobile Alert System, which will be formally announced at a meeting in New York on Tuesday, will direct emergency messages to cellphones in case of a terrorist attack, natural disaster or other serious emergencies.
The alert plan was approved by Congress in 2006 under the Warning Alert and Response Network Act.
Reaching people in the midst of disasters such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when cellphone networks were overwhelmed or otherwise out of service, has been an ongoing concern for emergency personnel around the country.
Local and state governments have been increasingly turning to text messages to alert residents to everything from snow days closing schools to traffic blocking local roadways. But the volume of messages can be overwhelming or too late to be of much help.
Genachowski and Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate said the new national system will be selective in what it sends out.
"These are really focused on the highest levels of alerts, and those that require urgent action," Fugate said.
Genachowski added that officials expect the alerts "to be very limited."
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, Genachowski said.
A special chip is required to allow the phone to receive the messages, and starting next 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 cell phones turned on in the direct 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 likely 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."