New emergency system texts alerts to cellphones

President Barack Obama will soon have the ability to send any cellphone in the U.S. a text-message warning of impending danger, from a tornado to a terrorist, under a new emergency alert system called PLAN.

The new system is an expansion of the Federal Communications Commission’s emergency alert system, which is currently broadcast over radio and television.

PLAN, which is short for Personal Localized Alerting Network, will first be rolled out in New York City by the end of this year, with the rest of the U.S. to follow in about the middle of next year, the FCC said in a statement.

The text-message warnings will be able to be sent out to phones and other mobile devices based on their geographic location, across different mobile carriers, officials said.

PLAN is being rolled out by the FCC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with the cooperation of cellular service providers, according to a FEMA statement.

FEMA said the system “ensures that emergency alerts will not get stuck in highly congested user areas, which can happen with standard mobile voice and texting services. PLAN enables government officials to target emergency alerts to specific geographic areas through cell towers (e.g. lower Manhattan), which pushes the information to dedicated receivers in PLAN-enabled mobile devices.”

But the president won’t be the only one able to issue a text message through PLAN.

Local, state and national government officials all will be able to send public-safety alerts through PLAN, which will be run by FEMA and the FCC, officials said.

Wireless carriers take part in the system voluntarily, but all who do opt in (including major carriers such as AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon) have to have PLAN technology set up and ready to go by April 2012, FEMA said.

Consumers do not need to sign up for the service; their carrier will automatically sign them up, and they won’t be charged for receiving any PLAN text alerts, the agencies said.

Only three types of alerts will be sent out on PLAN: messages issued by the president, alerts involving imminent threats to safety of life, and Amber Alerts.

PLAN alerts will also be given a unique attention signal and vibration, “which is particularly helpful to people with hearing or vision-related disabilities,” FEMA said.

Consumers will have the option, through their wireless carrier, to block all PLAN alerts except for those issued by the president.

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