Today, the New York City Office of Emergency Management — along with, the FCC and the ’s Science and Technology Directorate — will test the city’s Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system, an emergency notification service that lets officials transmit emergency texts to WEA-enabled mobile devices on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon wireless networks.
Six test messages will be sent to WEA-enabled mobile devices around New York City. Those devices will emit an audible notification and receive a notification that reads, “Severe Alert” or “Extreme Alert,” followed by “This is a test from NYC Office of Emergency Mgmt. Test Message 1. This is only a test.” Due to the limited nature of the test, most members of the public will not see the message, according to an NYC press release.
The city, FEMA, the FCC and the four nationwide wireless providers announced the WEA — also known as the Personal Localized Alerting Network or the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) — in May. A pilot of the program is expected to go live in NYC on Jan. 1 that will deliver presidential, imminent-threats-to-safety and AMBER alerts to mobile users on participating wireless networks. Users can opt out of the AMBER and imminent threat alerts but not presidential alerts.
CMAS works by having emergency-alert origination teams positioned in local and state operation centers. Once it is determined that an alert is necessary, it will be written in 90 characters or less, sent to FEMA’s alert aggregator, and then transmitted to cellular providers for dissemination. Each message will be geo-tagged and only sent to the people who are in the vicinity of the impacted area.
Today’s trial follows several earlier tests, including last year’s first end-to-end cell broadcast technology pilot of the CMAS in Florida in a public/private partnership with Blackboard Inc., Alcatel-Lucent and CellCast Technologies. The companies tested the CMAS standard by delivering emergency alerts to handsets on the MetroPCS wireless network throughout Florida’s Pasco and Polk counties, said Jim Johnston, operations coordinator for Pasco County. Johnston said the pilots are being run to meet the threat and presidential alerts capabilities mandate written in the Warning, Alert and Response Network Act of 2006, which that states warning systems must be live by April 2012.
Brendan Cotter, a senior vice president for Blackboard, said cell broadcasting lets the company indentify a specific area and send a mass emergency notification through single or multiple towers and have them received via text message to anyone in that geo-targeted area stating that the beauty of the technology is “that it allows us to target that individual without having to specifically know who he or she is,” Cotter said.
While the Florida pilot was successful, the bigger question is how the public will use the system and perceive alerts, including whether or not they will take action. Johnston said it is important messages are defined and that they communicate valid information to the population affected.
In addition, he said the public may ultimately pay for the text message associated with the CMAS system, even through under the presidential directive it states the receiver cannot be charged. Some costs can be offset since the cell broadcast trunking has commercial applications. But government will have to pay the difference, which means tax dollars.
“We have to determine how to minimize that cost by offsetting it with commercial applications the carrier can benefit from as saleable products,” he said.
CMAS tests do go awry. Earlier this week, Verizon Wireless sent out a CMAS test to residents of New Jersey who had Android devices without the language that the message was a test, leading to hundreds of calls to 911. Verizon later publicly apologized for the error.