HOMELAND SECURITY

Senators Call For Emergency Cell Phone Alert System

8/1/2008
By Sara Peck and Priscilla Ybarra

With the increased availability of cell phones, email and PDAs, lawmakers have criticized the Department of Homeland Security for not keeping the current emergency response system in pace with the times.

President Bush — through an executive order — created the public alert and warning system in 2006 to notify citizens of terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other hazards. Messages will be transmitted through the airwaves via radio and television stations, as well as cable and satellite services.
Senators now want mobile phones to be added to the mix.

“I urge the department to review its protocols for mass communications,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “(It will) ensure that procedures are in place to convey life-saving information to as many people as possible through as many different forms of communications as possible when disaster strikes.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which supports the distribution of the urgent information, is working on systems to transmit mass messages to mobile phone service providers in the event of wide scale emergencies, Martha Rainville, assistant administrator of FEMA, said at the hearing.

However, mass messages may overwhelm cell phone service capacities, one expert told National Defense.

“The minute something happens people pick up their phones to call friends and family,” said Mike Hartnett, vice president of marketing and customer deployment at Global Relief Technologies — a company that provides emergency communications. “Most of the telephone companies become inoperable…everyone just gets a busy signal. The network capacity had been a challenge in events like 9/11.”

Most telephone companies have been designed to control a set number of calls at once. Current telephony infrastructure will be a challenge DHS must overcome before implementing a mobile phone alert system, said Hartnett.

Topics: Homeland Security, Disaster Response, Emergency Communications

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