FEMA and FCC commit to more training before implementing emergency mobile alerts

Local emergency managers need more training before the nationwide rollout of an emergency-alert text messaging system, industry officials told a House panel Friday, warning that ill-considered texts about minor events could result in cell users not taking the alerts seriously.

The Personal Localized Alert Network will be rolled out in New York City in the next few months and should be operating nationwide by spring 2012, James Barnett, chief of the Federal Communications Commission's Public Safety Bureau told members of the House Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness.

The PLAN program will allow local emergency managers to send out emergency alerts to all cell phones within range of selected cell towers and will give the texts priority placement, so they'll get through even if phone networks are overloaded during a natural disaster.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is partnering with the FCC on the project.

About 97 percent of mobile carriers have agreed to carry the alerts on a voluntary basis, Christopher Guttman-McCabe, vice president for regulatory affairs at CTIA, a wireless industry group, told the panel.

That number will likely grow to nearly 100 percent before the system is rolled out, Guttman-McCabe said, because more technical specifications for the project have been hammered out recently, giving carriers a better sense of precisely what they're signing on for.

Lawmakers pressed Barnett and FEMA Assistant Administrator Damon Penn on whether local emergency management officials -- in rural areas, often a county sheriff or town police chief -- are receiving sufficient training in how to ensure text alerts only go through cell towers where people are most likely to be affected by the emergency.

They also wanted to ensure the service will only be used for genuine emergencies such as tornadoes, fires and hazardous waste spills, not inconveniences such as traffic accidents that might lengthen commute times.

Guttman-McCabe told the panel he receives voluntary text messages from his county's emergency management agency, which sometimes alert him to scheduled building demolitions, loose pets, and, in one case, the beginning of cold and flu season.

"That can't be the case if you're deploying this nationwide," he said. "Our concern is that you could build the greatest system, but if you overuse it, you get the car alarm syndrome. No one pays attention to car alarms anymore. The last thing we want to do is to pepper this thing with alerts that aren't necessary because then people will stop paying attention."

Penn acknowledged training so far has been inadequate, but told panelists it would be up to par before the system goes national.

Barnett and Guttman-McCabe both assured lawmakers that the system won't invade cell subscribers' privacy and that neither the emergency management official sending the alerts nor the mobile company that facilitates them will have a record of which phones receive the messages.

"The technology it uses really doesn't allow for tracking or monitoring," Barnett said. "It's more like a portable radio. The report comes through a federal aggregator, it hits a cell tower and it goes out. He doesn't know who's there. He just knows a cell phone was hit in that particular danger area."