National Alert System – Big Brother or Best Protection in an Emergency?

The Personal Localized Alert Network (PLAN) set to launch in New York City and Washington DC later this year is intended to alert the public via their cell phones in emergency situations.  According to the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the system would also warn about terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

Designed to update emergency broadcast systems of city sirens and TV alerts from the mid-fifties, PLAN is set to roll out across the country by end of 2012.

It is high time this low cost, customizable, high-tech alternative comes into place. And implemented correctly, this will not impact the privacy of individual citizens. Here’s why:

These systems should be designed to blast messages to each cellular tower in an impacted area. In turn, the tower should blast the message to every cell phone within its range.  This doesn’t require mapping anything about a user, or pulling information back from that user’s phone. It’s simply a technology to push emergency content to every cell phone within an area to provide specific alerts about specific threats – whether those threats are natural disasters, terrorist threats, or otherwise.

By pushing messages to cell towers and then to any phone connected to that tower the system would know no more about the recipient than I would if I stood on a street corner and yelled out a warning to passersby who happened to be within hearing distance.

The brilliance of this technology is that warning messages can be honed to fit very specific locations. For example, those within a half-mile of where a river at flood stage is going to spill could be different than the message for those 3 miles away. Or, it could be providing different instructions as to where to bring wounded based on what roads are traversable.

If you don’t care to know when a disaster is headed your way, you will be able to opt out of the emergency alerts – but don’t then whine when disaster strikes. You will also be able to opt out of receiving Amber Alerts through this system (Amber alerts notify the public when a child has been abducted in their area so they can be on the lookout).

What you will not be able to opt out of are emergency alerts sent by the President, but since this Presidential messaging feature has been in place since the 1950’s without ever being used, the likelihood of receiving such a message is slim.

Imagine the difference this functionality could have made when SARS broke out, or when the 2004 tsunami hit Southeast Asia, or during Katrina, or in Japan with the devastating earthquake.  When getting critical information to segments of the population is vital to their survival, nothing will work better than leveraging the technology in everyone’s pocket or purse.

While we do need to have oversight into the way these emergency broadcast systems are developed to ensure they do not encroach on our privacy, the tremendous boon these systems provide is a cause for celebration.

Linda

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