National mobile alert system goes live; now phones have to catch up

CMAS can send text-based emergency alerts to all mobile phones in a targeted area, though many phones aren't yet equipped to receive them.

The Commercial Mobile Alerting System, a national alert system that sends emergency messages to mobile phones, is officially live, although it will be a while before many phones are able to receive the alerts.

CMAS, which has been in the works for a few years, can send text-based messages to people’s phones in geographically targeted areas. It requires no subscription, and there are no charges for the messages.

A joint project of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Communications Commission and wireless carriers, it uses SMS-Cell Broadcast technology (a one-to-many service, as opposed to point-to-point services) in order to avoid backlogs when wireless voice and data services get taxed in an emergency, FEMA said.


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CMAS is part of the broader Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, which is intended to integrate communications channels, including cellular, satellite and the Internet, into a far-reaching alert network. It complements the venerable and recently upgraded Emergency Alert System (EAS), which delivers warnings via TV and radio transmissions using broadcast, cable, satellite and wire-line platforms.

FEMA expects that most alerts will be weather-related and will be issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service but emphasized that the system will only be used for the most serious events, be they weather conditions such as hurricanes and tornadoes or other emergencies. The service will be used for Amber alerts concerning abducted children, Imminent Threat alerts involving potential terrorist activity, and Presidential alerts involving natural disasters, terrorism and other emergencies.

For example, state and local officials who want to be able to send Imminent Threat alerts must complete a four-step application process and then ensure that their alerts meet FCC criteria for severity.

Hundreds of wireless carriers, including all the major providers, are participating in CMAS, but FEMA says it will take some before all infrastructure and devices are upgraded to handle the alerts. Not all mobile devices are capable of receiving CMAS/WEA messages, FEMA said, but some existing phones could be upgradeable and carriers are now selling phones with the capability.

Most commercially available phones will be capable of receiving the messages by 2014, FEMA said. (Boxes of such devices will bear a logo reading “Wireless Emergency Alerts Capable.”)

Although the alerts will carry messages written in text, they differ from traditional Short Message Service text messages in that they will pop up on a user’s phone automatically, rather than having to be opened. Alerts will use a unique ringtone and vibration to differentiate themselves from other messages or calls, but won’t pre-empt calls in progress, FEMA said.

Messages will be limited to 90 characters, so they’ll contain only basic information about an emergency, along with recommended actions.

There are no charges associated with the alerts, either to people or government agencies. And although the system will send messages to every capable device in a specified geographic area, people can opt out of receiving Imminent Threat and Amber alerts, but not Presidential alerts.

And because SMS-Cell Broadcast is a one-way technology, FEMA said, CMAS cannot track the phones receiving its messages or collect any data from a users’ phone.

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