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Communicating with the Public During Emergencies

by: Jamie Barnett, Chief, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau

July 8, 2011

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:54:]]With over 1,400 tornadoes and widespread flooding, we have already seen too much loss of life from natural disasters this year.  A bright spot in these terrible reports is when we hear a survivor say, “I got the warning, and I got to safety.”  This is the crucial premise of all alerts and warnings.  We may not be able to protect every single person from every disaster, but if we can get timely, accurate information about imminent danger to people in harm’s way, they can take action to save themselves and their loved ones.  Alerts provide the information that turns precious seconds into survival.

One of the FCC’s primary statutory obligations is to promote the safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communications, and we are committed to this responsibility. We recognize this should be a team effort, and the FCC works closely with FEMA to bring the future of emergency alerting to consumers.

In 2008, the FCC adopted rules allowing wireless carriers to voluntarily transmit emergency text-like alerts to subscribers’ cell phones and other mobile devices. Since then, the FCC, FEMA, the wireless industry and state and local governments have worked to make a personal localized alerting network (or PLAN) a reality.  Four carriers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon – have committed to making PLAN available in New York City by the end of the year, and these carriers and others will begin to deploy PLAN in other parts of the country by April 7, 2012, the deadline set by the FCC.

PLAN will be an important complement to other alert systems -- like the familiar Emergency Alert System -- by using new cellular broadcast technology to allow government officials to send text-like emergency alerts to everyone in a targeted geographic area who has an enabled mobile device, at no charge to the consumer.  PLAN creates a “fast lane” for alerts, so critical information is guaranteed to get through, even if there’s congestion on a carrier’s network.  The way this technology works neither the alert initiator nor anyone administering the system will know who receives an alert -- PLAN cannot be used to monitor wireless devices or an alert recipient’s location.

EAS requires radio and television broadcasters, cable operators, and satellite providers to have equipment that can deliver emergency alerts to the public from as high up as the President.  Although the state and local components of the EAS are tested regularly, to date, the EAS has never been tested on a nationwide basis.  To remedy this, FEMA and the FCC have announced the first top-down, nationwide test of all components of the EAS at 2:00 p.m. EST, on November 9th of this year.  We are working with FEMA to be sure the public is aware of the nationwide test before it occurs.

911 is another key element of public safety communications.  Today, the average American sends about 20 texts a day, and the average teenager sends over 100, so it may come as a surprise to know that you can’t reach 911 via texting.  If your child winds up in an emergency situation and texts 911 for help, that “call” for help will go unanswered.  The FCC is looking at how to ensure that 911 call centers have access to broadband technologies to communicate with 911 dispatchers and to accelerate the deployment of next generation 911 which could allow the public to send text messages, video and photos to 911.  We aren’t there, yet, but we’re working closely with everyone involved to get there.

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