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:
— Mike Beauchamp (@mbchp) October 30, 2012
…and upon Android devices:
Emergency alert on my phone. instagr.am/p/RYvlmJxJec/
— Heidi N. Moore (@moorehn) October 30, 2012
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.
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:
— Sree Sreenivasan (@sree) October 28, 2012
He tweeted out the second alert he received, on the night of the 29th, as well:
— Sree Sreenivasan (@sree) October 30, 2012
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.
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.
— Ola Forsstrom-Olsson (@olaforsstrom) October 30, 2012
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.
— Cristina(@CJP_) October 30, 2012
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.