If you live in the U.S., you've probably seen those anger-inducing emergency alert system test messages that interrupt your favorite programming on a weekly basis. Most of us have never seen the system used in an actual emergency, but come later this year, cell phone users in New York and Washington will have similar alerts pushed to their mobile devices -- presumably without the annoying weekly tests. Known as PLAN (Personal Localized Alerting Network), the free service will reportedly only work with smartphones (we're guessing the GPS comes into play here) on AT&T&T, Sprint and Verizon. The secure messaging network will likely display messages as notifications, rather than texts, and will push to all compatible devices within an affected area based on the phone's physical location, not just its mobile number. Local, state and federal officials will send notifications in response to disasters and other public safety threats, presidential announcements, and Amber Alerts. In other words: it'll only be used for actual emergencies, so don't expect updates on the whereabouts of your favorite captive reptile.
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MAYOR BLOOMBERG, THE FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION, THE FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY AND WIRELESS PROVIDER EXECUTIVES UNVEIL NEW, FIRST-IN-THE-NATION EMERGENCY NOTIFICATION SERVICE THAT WILL REACH MOBILE DEVICES LOCATED IN AFFECTED AREAS

No Opt-In Necessary, Any Enabled Mobile Device Located in the Affected Area at Time of Emergency Will Receive a Message

Free Messages Will Be Sent from Local Cellular Towers to Avoid User Traffic and Will Appear As Text Messages on Enabled Devices

Keeps Mayor's Ambitious 2005 Campaign Promise to Develop Text Alert System with Federal Official and Wireless Carriers

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg joined Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator W. Craig Fugate to announce the launch of a new emergency notification service that will send geographically targeted messages to any enabled mobile device in the area of an emergency, providing details of imminent threats and critical safety information. The service, known as PLAN – the Personal Localized Alerting Network – will issue emergency alerts to users located in the affected area at the time of the emergency, regardless of where the user lives or purchased his or her phone. Authorized government officials will send messages, which participating wireless providers then transmit using their cell towers, to enabled mobile devices in the targeted geographic area. The alerts will not be stalled by user congestion, which can happen with standard mobile voice and texting services. In 2005, Mayor Bloomberg pledged to work with the FCC, FEMA, and various cell phone carriers and manufacturers to build a viable system for wireless alerts and the City worked with FEMA's on the initial first pilot program. Mayor Bloomberg made the announcement at 2 World Financial Center overlooking the World Trade Center site and also was joined by New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly; New York City Fire Commissioner Salvatore J. Cassano; Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph F. Bruno; NYPD Deputy Chief Charles Dowd, Communications Division; FDNY Chief of Communications Robert Boyce; and executives from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon.

"In both the public and private sectors, I've always believed in the need to harness technology in new ways, including ways that its designers hadn't anticipated," said Mayor Bloomberg. "The City's opt-in Notify NYC system is a great example of that: it alerts people to dangers and delays via email, text and phone, and it has become a national model of emergency communication. But given the kinds of threats made against New York City at the World Trade Center, Times Square, and other places popular with visitors and tourists, we'll be even safer when authorities can broadcast warnings to everyone in a geographic area regardless of where they came from or bought their phone. I want to congratulate FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate for this quantum leap forward in using technology to help keep people safe."

The service will be available in New York City by the end of 2011 and customers of participating carriers will be automatically signed up. When PLAN is operational, customers in an area affected by an emergency who have a PLAN-capable mobile device will receive an alert of ninety characters or less. Participating carriers are including PLAN chips in their new phones, and many recently purchased phones already have the chip and only will require a software upgrade. The geographic targeting feature means that a customer living in New York City would not receive a threat alert if they happen to be out of town when the alert is sent. Similarly, someone visiting New York City from out of town on that same day would receive the alert. Consumers will receive three types of alerts from PLAN: alerts issued by the President, alerts involving imminent threats to safety of life, and Amber Alerts. Participating carriers may allow subscribers to block all but Presidential alerts. A PLAN alert will be accompanied by a unique attention signal and vibration, which is particularly helpful to people with hearing or vision-related disabilities.

"Communications technology – and in particular mobile broadband – has the potential to revolutionize emergency response," said FCC Chairman Genachowski. "Our communications networks need to be reliable and resilient in times of emergency. The FCC is working with carriers to ensure that they are."

"Following the devastating tornadoes in the Southeast, we are witnessing yet again the critical role the public plays as part of our nation's emergency management team. Making sure that they get useful and life-saving information, quickly and easily, right on their mobile phones, will help more people get out of harm's way when a threat exists," said Administrator Fugate. "This new technology could become a lifeline for millions of Americans and is another tool that will strengthen our nation's resilience against all hazards."

"PLAN fills a gap in our preparedness by allowing us to get emergency alerts to anyone with a properly equipped cell-phone, not just those who subscribe to Notify NYC," said OEM Commissioner Bruno. "Despite this new cell broadcasting program, you should still sign up for Notify NYC. If there is an imminent threat to your safety we want to be able to reach you by every means possible, including email, land lines and messages broadcast through PLAN."

"When a catastrophe is the product of terrorism or other man-made evil, the NYPD's goal is to stop it before it happens," said Police Commissioner Kelly. "We prefer to be emergency preventers than emergency responders. But, obviously, we must be prepared to do both. This new alert system is a welcome addition to our arsenal of readiness."

"If we have a major Haz-Mat incident or other large-scale situation, this tool will help us make sure that people in the immediate vicinity of the incident have the information they need to stay safe and stay away from the area," said Fire Commissioner Cassano. "In many cases, it's just as important for the public to know what not to do, as it is to know what to do. These PLAN alerts will keep the public informed, and keep our members focused on the task at hand."

PLAN complements the existing Emergency Alert System, which is implemented by the FCC and FEMA at the federal level through broadcasters and other media service providers. Like the Emergency Alert System, PLAN is intended to keep up with new technologies that can keep Americans safer. This modern, integrated and complementary alert system provides significant public safety roles for broadcasters, cable service providers, wireless service providers and other service providers. In 2006, Congress passed the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act, requiring carriers that choose to participate to activate PLAN technology by a deadline determined by the FCC, which is April 2012. Participants that will offer PLAN in New York City –at least two calendar quarters ahead of schedule – are AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. Ninety percent of New Yorkers who have a PLAN-capable mobile device in these cities will be able to receive PLAN alerts by the end of 2011. PLAN is also called the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS).

Notify NYC launched citywide in May 2009 after a year-long pilot program, fulfilling a commitment made by Mayor Bloomberg in 2005. Residents in all five boroughs can register an e-mail address, text message account, or phone number for up to five zip codes to receive Notify NYC advisories about emergencies and special events. Registration is free via www.nyc.gov or by calling 311. Currently, more than 66,000 e-mail and telephone subscribers utilize Notify NYC, with another 17,000 people following Notify NYC on Twitter.

For more information on PLAN, visit the Federal Communications Commission website at www.fcc.gov or follow @FCC on Twitter.

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PLAN emergency alert system going mobile in NYC and DC this year, nationwide in 2012