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Emergency Alerts Delivered to Your Phone: What Our New PLAN Means to You


Tuesday’s joint launch of PLAN (Personal Localized Alert Network) with the FCC and the New York City Mayor’s Office marks another major milestone in the deployment of FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert Warning System.  PLAN is the more user friendly public naming for the CMAS (Commercial Mobile Alert System).  The launch in New York City is just that, a launch of the capability, not a pilot.  The system is another tool that allows emergency managers at all levels to communicate alerts and warnings to the public.

With the cooperation of the cellular industry, PLAN will enable citizens to receive alerts about imminent threats on their mobile devices.  So what’s new about this?

  • The messages incorporate broadcast delivery technology and will not be impacted by cellular network congestion – a fancy way of saying the alerts will get through even if cellular networks are swamped.  As we all know, traditional text messages and telephone calls get stuck during heavy cell traffic, so these critical and potentially life-saving alerts will always get through.  
  • The messages are location based and will provide alerts to you about threats where you are currently located.  For example, if you are visiting New York City, you will receive the same alerts as people who live in New York City.  And let’s say you moved to Los Angeles but didn’t change your cell phone number, you would still receive the alerts because you’re in the warning area.
  • And as far as cost, the service comes at no expense to the emergency managers who send the messages.

PLAN and the Emergency Alert System (alerts via TV and radio) are components of FEMA’s IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System) program.  Through IPAWS, we are focused on modernizing our public alerting system, so alerts can be transmitted to the public on as many channels as possible, and PLAN is a major step forward as we enhance our nation’s emergency alert systems.  As we always say at FEMA, we are just one part of a larger emergency management team – and getting PLAN to this stage has been and will continue to be a great team effort.

To help explain where PLAN fits into the overall design of an alerting system and how it affects our key stakeholders – especially the public – I wanted to take a minute to answer some of the most common questions we’ve been hearing.

What was FEMA’s role in PLAN? 

As part of our responsibility to ensure the President can communicate with the American public under all conditions, FEMA instituted and maintains the Emergency Alert System (EAS).  As I mentioned above, EAS are the tests and alerts you receive over radio and TV.  With the public’s reliance on ever evolving technologies, we’ve broadened our approach to include a host of other alert disseminators, including Internet Services, NOAA radios, and state and local unique alerting systems.

We’ve been working with the FCC and the cellular industry on PLAN for several years, when we came up with the vision for technology that will actually transmit the alerts to cell phones.  And if you’ve heard the term Commercial Mobile Alerting System, that’s the term that is more commonly know within the cellular industry.

As part of the IPAWS system, we developed what we call “an aggregator” which takes the original message, puts it into a language that mobile phones carriers can use, and then distributes it over their networks to their customers.

Is PLAN different from CMAS or a change in FEMA’s approach to mobile alerting?

No – for all of our stakeholders in the wireless and other technical communities, PLAN is CMAS, just with a different, more user-friendly name. You can think of PLAN as the public label for CMAS.

So where does the FCC come in?

The FCC, along with other federal agencies like the National Weather Service, is our partner in all things related to IPAWS, including PLAN. The FCC is the governing body for anything that broadcasts and in this case, they wrote the rules for how the cell companies should use and install the equipment, and they have been a great partner in implementing PLAN.

We know there are a lot of players in PLAN, but to break it down simply:

  • A committee of wireless industry representatives, public safety officials, and experts from the alert and warning community recommended the requirements for establishing a mobile alerting system.
  • Wireless carriers choose to voluntarily participate in this program in accordance with rules and recommendations adopted by the FCC.
  • Wireless carriers are responsible for making their networks and mobile phones compatible with the new system.
  • Public safety officials who want to use the new capability are responsible for being able to communicate emergency alerts for transmission to the cellular networks. Remember that only authorized federal, state or local authorities can issue emergency alerts, the same way they do through the radio and TV broadcast emergency alert system.
  • FEMA is working with state and local officials and organizations to help them use the technology and develop best practices and procedures for sending emergency alerts to their specific area or region.

Why was New York City announced early?

Several of our wireless partners – AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile and US Cellular – were able to work with New York City to get the technology ready to implement early, by the end of 2011. This was an exciting development – but it in no way means that we are limiting PLAN to only New York City.

The technology for delivering these messages is available now, and the development and distribution of the phones will make the system ready for everyone to use by April, 2012.

Will PLAN track mobile phone users?

No. PLAN is used only to deliver emergency alerts. In the same way that emergency alerts do not track individual homes when they are displayed on TV sets, PLAN will not be used to monitor wireless device usage or monitor consumers’ locations.

Will I be swamped with messages I don’t want?

No.  PLAN is a technology that will be incorporated into the phone itself.  Consumers do not need to sign up for this service.  You will not be able to turn off a Presidential alert, but you will be able to turn off other alerts.  Don’t worry, the President isn’t going to flood you with running commentary on your local events.  Just like with sending alerts to your radio and tv, it’s our insurance that the President can always communicate with the public even if they aren’t by a TV or radio.

How much will consumers pay to receive PLAN alerts?

Participating carriers will not charge consumers a fee to receive PLAN alerts.

How much will it cost states and localities to participate in PLAN?

We anticipate that any costs will be minimal.  State and local authorities will only need a compatible software program to access the system to send alerts and warnings.  Many emergency managers already use programs that are compatible with the system.

Does PLAN replace the Emergency Alert System?

Absolutely not. As I mentioned above, the Emergency Alert System is for notifications via the TV and radio and PLAN is for notifications via your smartphone.  PLAN and the Emergency Alert System are components of IPAWS.

PLAN was never intended to serve as the only way to alert the public of an emergency.  Just like we use multiple digital channels to communicate with the public (full website, mobile site, Twitter or Facebook), PLAN is another tool that will complement the Emergency Alert System and state and local alerting systems.

Will PLAN be available everywhere?

Participation in PLAN by wireless carriers is voluntary. Some carriers will offer PLAN over their entire networks and all of their devices, while others will offer it over parts of their service areas. Ultimately, we expect that PLAN will be available in most of the country. Consumers should check with their wireless carriers to determine the extent to which they are offering PLAN.

How will subscribers know if their carrier offers PLAN?

Under FCC rules, wireless carriers that have limited participation in PLAN will be required to notify existing and new customers of this fact. Consumers should check with their wireless carriers to determine the extent to which they are offering PLAN.

Will consumers need a new phone or a smart phone to receive alerts?

That depends. Some phones may require only software upgrades to receive alerts, while in other cases, a subscriber may need to purchase a new PLAN-capable phone. Consumers should check with their wireless carrier regarding the availability of PLAN-capable phones.

What is the incentive for a consumer to upgrade to a PLAN-capable phone?

This one is easy – PLAN will help us save lives. We hope that everyone will be able to benefit from this tool when it is fully available.

We know there will continue to be a lot of questions about PLAN, and we will do our best to answer them here. In that spirit, I wanted to share another article that gives a good sense of how PLAN is just one part of our work.

If there are other questions I can help answer, please leave a comment below.

Last Updated: 
18/06/2012 - 14:09