04 Aug Wisconsin firm leads testing of alerts by cell phone
Little Chute, Wis. – Although the third major storm of the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season, Tropical Storm Chris, fizzled into a low-pressure system recently, apprehensions about impending natural and man-made disasters continue to circulate across the country.
A Wisconsin telecommunications company has been enlisted to take some of that apprehension away.
To address concerns of a large-scale crisis once again striking unwary civilians, emergency management agencies have turned to mobile device messages as a medium for sending warnings. The move follows an executive order from President Bush to update the archaic Emergency Alert System, best known for weather bulletins and Amber Alerts for missing children.
Bush ordered Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff last month to implement the policy “to ensure that under all conditions the President can communicate with the American people,” in cases of war, terrorist attack, or other public danger.
Communicating through digital handsets appears particularly promising because of their built-in capacity to reach users in specified geographic areas.
Such initiatives are well established in areas of Europe and the Pacific Rim, where governments have programs in place to immediately notify local mobile phone users of looming emergencies and hazards. A variety of projects in the U.S. aim to achieve the same level of preparedness.
Wisconsin firm assists FEMA
Einstein Wireless, a Wisconsin carrier also known as Airadigm Wireless, is leading efforts to assist officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Homeland Security and the New York City Mayor’s office to implement emergency cell broadcasting, a tool that delivers near-instantaneous messages to mobile phones in specified cell sites.
Greg Selig, senior director of operations and engineering for Einstein, manages overall network systems. He said that a demonstration of the technology conducted two months ago in Wisconsin provided groundwork for ongoing implementation projects planned this year for state and county emergency management centers.
The test, he said, “ended up being so straightforward and simple – we just put a bunch of handsets out there and started doing some cell broadcast messages.”
The problem with placing cell broadcasting capabilities in the hands of emergency management agencies is logistical. Adopting the technology will require time for identifying the appropriate messaging mechanism and conducting all necessary installations, training, and tests.
Making short messaging work
Wisconsin Emergency Management intends to do a six-month trial with selected counties involving the dissemination of information to subscribers about how to configure handsets to receive broadcast messages, typically by simply changing menu default settings. In addition, county emergency management staff will be trained to operate the cellular Web interface system to send highly localized messages regarding such dangers as train derailments.
Cell broadcast messaging services already are built into most mobile devices. Einsein and other providers like Cingular Wireless operate on the global system for mobile communications, or “groupe spécial mobile” (GSM) platform, where messaging was written into open standard protocols almost 20 years ago.
“There’s always been an interest in getting messages quickly out to a large number of people,” Selig said, but the only question was choosing the most suitable mechanism.
Short messaging, also known as text messaging, allows for individually addressable messages, but it can be slow because of technical cues, deactivated handsets, and foreign messages for travelers, Selig explained. GSM is used by over two billion people across 213 countries and territories globally, according to PR Newswire and GSM Association.
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