NYC’s PLAN to alert citizens to danger during Hurricane Sandy

A mobile alert system put messages where and when they were needed: residents' palms.

Starting at around 8:36 PM ET last night, as Hurricane Sandy began to flood the streets of lower Manhattan, many New Yorkers began to receive an unexpected message: a text alert on their mobile phones that strongly urged them to seek shelter. It showed up on iPhones:

…and upon Android devices:

While the message was clear enough, the way that these messages ended up on the screens may not have been clear to recipients or observers. And still other New Yorkers were left wondering why emergency alerts weren’t on their phones.

Here’s the explanation: the emergency alerts that went out last night came from New York’s Personal Localized Alerting Network, the “PLAN” the Big Apple launched in late 2011.

NYC chief digital officer Rachel Haot confirmed that the messages New Yorkers received last night were the result of a public-private partnership between the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM), the CTIA and wireless carriers.

While the alerts may look quite similar to text messages, the messages themselves run in parallel, enabling them to get through txt traffic congestion. NYC’s PLAN is the local version of the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) that has been rolling out nation-wide over the last year.

“This new technology could make a tremendous difference during disasters like the recent tornadoes in Alabama where minutes – or even seconds – of extra warning could make the difference between life and death,” said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, speaking last May in New York City. “And we saw the difference alerting systems can make in Japan, where they have an earthquake early warning system that issued alerts that saved lives.”

NYC was the first city to have it up and running, last December, and less than a year later, the alerts showed up where and when they mattered.

The first such message I saw shared by a New Yorker actually came on October 28th, when the chief digital officer of the Columbia Journalism School, Sree Sreenivasan, tweeted about receiving the alert:

He tweeted out the second alert he received, on the night of the 29th, as well:

These PLAN alerts go out to everyone in a targeted geographic area with enabled mobile devices, enabling emergency management officials at the state and local level to get an alert to the right people at the right time. And in an emergency like a hurricane, earthquake or fire, connecting affected residents to critical information at the right time and place are essential.

While the government texting him gave national security writer Marc Ambinder some qualms about privacy, the way the data is handled looks much less disconcerting than, say, needing to opt-out of sharing location data or wireless wiretapping.

PLAN alerts are free and automatic, unlike opt-in messages from Notify NYC or signing up for email alerts from OEM.

Not all New Yorkers received an emergency alert during Sandy because not all mobile devices have the necessary hardware installed or have updated relevant software. In May 2011, new iPhones and Android devices already had the chip. (Most older phones, not so much.)

These alerts don’t go out for minor issues, either: the system is only used by authorized state, local or national officials during public safety emergencies. They send the alert to CMAS, it’s authenticated, and then the system pushes it out to all enabled devices in a geographic area.

Consumers receive only three types of messages: alerts issued by the President, Amber Alerts, and alerts involving “imminent threats to safety or life.” The last category covers the ones that went out about Hurricane Sandy in NYC last night.

According to the FCC, participating mobile carriers can allow their subscribers to block all but Presidential alerts, although it may be a little complicated to navigate a website or call center to do so. By 2014, every mobile phone sold in the United States must be CMAS-capable. (You can learn more about CMAS in this PDF). Whether such mobile phones should be subsidized for the poor is a larger question that will be left to the next administration.

As more consumers replace their devices in the years ahead, more people around the United States will also be able to receive these messages, benefiting from a public-private partnership that actually worked to deliver on improved public safety.

At least one New Yorker got the message and listened to it:

“If ‘act’ means stay put, then why yes I did,” tweeted Noreen Whysel, operations manager Information Architecture Institute. “It was enough to convince my husband from going out….”

Here’s hoping New York City doesn’t have to use this PLAN to tell her and others about impending disaster again soon.

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  • http://twitter.com/opengavin Gavin Baker

    This is nitpicking, but wouldn’t it make more sense to show the time for the local timezone (in this case, ET rather than GMT)? Clearly the system knows where the message recipients are, so it should be able to know what timezone they’re in.

    • digiphile

      Good point. Yes, I agree.

    • cbunix23

      I work on this product used by AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and others. A broadcast area can cover multiple timezones, even a single cell tower can cover a couple timezones. The message sent by FEMA specifies the text and alert area, we send it out to the network to the covered network elements. FEMA would have to split the broadcast request into multiple requests, one per per timezone, that’s not something they want to do right now. Yes, the whole thing could be redesigned to be much smarter but we’re using broadcast protocols invented in the 1980s.

  • Olog-hai

    “Here’s hoping New York City doesn’t have use […]”

    You need a proofreader.

    • http://radar.oreilly.com/ Mac Slocum

      Thanks for the catch. This has been fixed.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/YD55V67CJ7HF2XCFNPPUXY5UGA taixi

    All PLAN-CMAS messages must be submitted to, and be approved by, the federal government before they are permitted to be broadcast to citizens. This is the single-point-of-failure that commenters tried to raise before the Federal Communications Commission during system development, and the FCC trivialized and dismissed their claims.

    • cbunix23

      State local county and tribal governments can submit broadcasts messages to this emergency broadcast system after going through appropriate training. I don’t understand the reason for the complaint.

  • cbunix23

    “Presidential Alerts” is just a name, it doesn’t mean it came from the POTUS. NYC wants to send “Presidential Alerts” too.

    • Na

      No, it really means it came from the President. NYC would be able to send Imminent Threat and/or AMBER messages, but Presidential alerts can only come from the POTUS.

      See http://transition.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/cmas.pdf for more info.

      • cbunix23

        We’ll see.

  • Jeffrey Waller

    everyone seems so powerless against mother nature… how could Mobile Phones companies stand still…??