Homeland Security Tests Mobile Alert System

The Department of Homeland Security is testing a new digital emergency system that, once implemented, will deliver alerts to any device that can receive a text message.

It is expected to go into effect by the end of 2007 after testing, largely carried out through its partnership with the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS), is complete.

Emergency Alert Makeover

The current emergency alert system was developed during the Cold War. As aficionados of late night network television can attest, the technology used is in serious need of an update.

“Digital capabilities will improve the reliability, flexibility and security of the emergency alert system,” said David Paulison, Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

Text messaging is the ideal technology for an emergency situation, says Doug Kaufman, CEO of ClearTXT, a provider of mobile communications applications for the education community.

“It works differently from voice calls,” he told TechNewsWorld, “in that it works well even without a good signal. And if the signal is completely dropped, the message goes into a queue and is delivered when the signal is back. It is a much more effective and reliable way to communicate during an emergency.”

Critical Information Delivery

Indeed, last summer when the land lines and cellular towers were out of commission for weeks following Hurricane Katrina, many people on the Gulf Coast were able to stay in contact with friends and family via text message — until their cell phones died, that is.

In fact, the emergency alert system that Kaufman visualizes — more advanced than what FEMA is planning to initially roll out — could have been helpful in the aftermath of Katrina.

Such a system would require more organization and database processing power, but it would allow FEMA or any other local responder to target recipients by ZIP code or telephone number to inform them of nearby aid operations or of forthcoming rescue efforts in a certain area.

“I have to say I was jumping up and down in frustration watching [the post-Katrina crisis] unfold,” said Kaufman. “Here was a group of people who desperately needed information and could have gotten it via text message if there had been a system in place.”

Not Just Emergencies

ClearTXT already works that way on a small scale. “It is an opt-in system,” he explained. “Students can select whether they want to receive notices from a particular department or their dorm manager, for instance.”

So, if a dorm’s electricity were scheduled to be out for a few hours the next day, for example, students could receive text messages about that in advance.

“It could also be used in an emergency situation,” Kaufman said, “but, fortunately, it hasn’t been necessary to use it that way so far.”

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