The New PLAN: Government Alerts Enter the 21st Century

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the commercial cellular industry have joined forces to create the nation’s first geo-targeted “alert and notification” warning system for the general public. The new Public Localized Alert Network (PLAN), formerly known as the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), will take advantage of the latest wireless handheld technology to deliver text alerts to citizens throughout the country, no matter what their exact physical location.

Covering three alert types – Amber, Imminent Threat, and Presidential Messages – compatible cell phones will receive 90-character alerts relating directly to that phone’s present location rather than the traditional “opt in” text alerts normally associated with a specific zip code or jurisdiction. Unlike the old Emergency Broadcast System – which would send, for example, a tornado warning across a wide geographic area – PLAN notifications will affect only those within the specific warning area. The result will be a far more efficient system of forwarding alerts to the general public. In other words, alerts will appear on a receiving device only if that device is physically located in the area specifically affected.

The development of the PLAN system is the result of an almost decade-long effort to standardize the ways in which alert messages are formatted, collected, and disseminated. Building on the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) XML message standard, alerts can be easily exchanged with multiple organizations and systems for redistribution. Using the “geo-aware” CAP standard, alert messages will then be aggregated via FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) Open Platform for Emergency Networks (OPEN).

The aforementioned “alphabet soup” of standards and acronyms may seem a bit confusing at first glance, but the new PLAN system is actually a major step forward: Standard messages are being integrated by a standard interface designed specifically for real-time alerting. IPAWS modernizes the Emergency Broadcast System (long-tone warnings), which dates back nearly 50 years and that most users are familiar with. The final piece of the puzzle involves the distribution of alerts, moving them from the limited reaches of radios and television sets to the pockets and purses of individual citizens everywhere.

April 2012: The Countdown to Full Compatibility

The FCC has worked closely with companies in the cellular wireless industry to ensure their ability to quickly access and distribute alerts from FEMA’s OPEN system to their customers’ devices. Every 15 seconds, commercial providers – e.g., Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon – will “poll” the OPEN system for alerts. Equally important, the distribution of a specific alert will use a separate networking “channel” for communicating with mobile devices, which users generally agree should not have to compete with the bandwidths reserved for phone calls and internet downloads (which also may be overloaded during a catastrophic event). At present, there are only a few compatible mobile devices that can receive the PLAN messages, but all new devices must be compatible when PLAN goes into effect nationally in April 2012.

The unique partnership between FEMA, the FCC, and the commercial wireless industry should help buffer certain criticisms and accusations of “big brother” monitoring the general public. Because it will be serving only as the aggregator for alerts, FEMA will not have the technological capability to monitor the locations of individual citizens receiving the alerts. Commercial carriers will access the alerts from FEMA (not the other way around) and then handle the distribution to their customers. In this way, the relationship between citizens and the specific organization(s) “aware” of their current whereabouts is only between those citizens and their chosen commercial providers, not the government.

Moreover, users can choose to “opt-out” of all but Presidential alerts – and will be able to do so directly (via their carriers). Although this solution will not satisfy the fears and suspicions of some users, others may find (and even may expect) some comfort in the fact that their present wireless providers have some sense of where they are. In an emergency situation, these same users may actually appreciate (and hope) that they can be located by their carriers if and when disaster strikes – and/or when they are, perhaps, unconscious and in need of medical assistance.

During a major disaster, natural or manmade, the ability to quickly send a geo-targeted alert may well be a major factor in minimizing the loss of life during the event. The robust and tested infrastructure that serves as the foundation for PLAN therefore represents a significant step forward in achieving this highly desirable objective. The end result should be an automated system that enables a radiological sensor, for example, to transmit an alert that, a few seconds later, will be displayed only on the mobile devices in the area directly affected. In the aftermath of the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami that devastated many areas of Japan earlier this year, the promising impact of the new PLAN technology is eagerly anticipated.

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso is the executive director of the Capital Wireless Information Net (CapWIN) Program at the University of Maryland, which provides software and mission-critical data access services to first responders in and across dozens of jurisdictions, disciplines, and levels of government. Formerly with IBM Business Consulting Services, he has more than 20 years of experience supporting large-scale implementation projects for information technology, and extensive experience in several related fields such as change management, business process reengineering, human resources, and communications.



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