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Cell phones alerts could save lives

The foundation for an emergency alert system exists on most phones.

By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer
Published February 7, 2007


President Bill Clinton stood amid the rubble of a Kissimmee campground destroyed by killer tornadoes nine years ago and promised a new effort to develop a better warning system.

The government must study "whether we can give some sort of satellite system, a buzzer system, bells and whistles to make sure people get advance warning," Clinton said.

At the time, the technology for such a system had existed for more than four years, but it had never been turned on.

Now it has existed for more than a dozen years.

And it's still not turned on.

Most digital cell phones, which went on the market in the early 1990s, have within them a dormant technology called cellular broadcasting. That system could have saved lives in Central Florida last week, when tornadoes killed 20 people, advocates say.

"Your cell phone would become part of an emergency alert system that would identify the type of emergency and action to be taken," said Douglas Weiser, a New Port Richey resident who formed a volunteer organization in 1994 to call attention to the alert feature.

"Most people leave their cell phones on all the time, even when they're charging," Weiser said. "If you suspect bad weather might be in the area, just take the cell phone with you when you go to sleep."

The system requires no modifications to modern cell phones. Cellular broadcasting is a function that can be turned on and off as easily as the ringer.

So why is it taking so long to implement?

Weiser thinks the delay was driven by the fact that it will cost the telecommunications industry an estimated $10-million to $12-million a year to operate such a system, "and they don't have anybody to bill it to."

Joe Farren, a spokesman for the Wireless Association, an industry trade group, said many technical problems have yet to be worked out.

"The industry has never opposed this approach," Farren said. "We just asked that we be a part of putting together how it will work instead of having it mandated upon us."

Weiser's group plans to petition Gov. Charlie Crist this month to help develop cellular broadcasting in Florida.

Targeted warnings

Here's how it would work:

If the problem is bad weather, the National Weather Service generates a warning box that defines the area under threat.

The cellular networks overlay the box on a map of their relay stations, write a text message about the nature of the threat and broadcast the message over all the relays located within the warning box.

The message triggers a cell phone alert. Since the message is targeted, only cell phones in the danger area get the notification.

There is no danger of network overload, Weiser said, even if the message is broadcast to 100,000 phones simultaneously. Unlike cell phone calls, where the phones and the cells are in constant back-and-forth contact, eating up communications capacity, cellular broadcasting is one-way, one time.

Congress passed a measure in October giving the Federal Communications Commission a year to come up with recommendations for activating cellular broadcasting in the United States. Wireless providers are among the members of the committee studying the issue.

A worldwide network

The United Nations has joined an effort to spread the system worldwide.

"The urgent mission is to make this work for the people who are the most vulnerable in the world," said Mark Wood, director of an international group working with the United Nations.

The United Nations got involved, Wood said, because international cooperation is needed to reserve enough channels to accommodate many of the world's 150 languages and protect those channels from commercial users.

"If somebody is tuned to an emergency station and gets bombarded by spam, he'll turn his phone off, and then what good is it?" Wood said.

He remembers walking along a beach in Sri Lanka after the tsunami and encountering a village of fishermen, who complained they couldn't sleep at night because they couldn't see the ocean to know if another wave was coming.

"But they all had cell phones," he said. "That's why their country is developing this emergency cellular communication. People should be able to sleep at night, whether they're in Sri Lanka or in Florida.' "

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

[Last modified February 7, 2007, 00:38:18]

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