Cell broadcasting used to warn public about Sandy

Posted on October 31, 2012  /  0 Comments

With slow-moving Sandy leaving New York State, they are counting the dead. It appears that 22 people died. Each death is a tragedy that the disaster managers would have loved to avoid. But can you imagine what the toll would have been if not for extensive planning and early warning?

The word “cell broadcasting” is not used in the piece from the Atlantic that I am quoting below, but it is quite clear that she is talking about cell broadcasting, a topic we have researched and written about extensively. Now that its efficacy has been established, I hope the standardization work necessary to make it even more effective will gain some momentum.

See here for a short summary of the cell broadcasting work we did for the Communication Authority of the Maldives. This piece was included as a box entitled “Peace of mind for a tourist paradise” in World Disasters Report 2009: Focus on early warning, early action, pp. 29-30. Geneva: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The importance of mobile phone access was on display last night in New York City, as cell phones became essential public safety communications devices. Some cell phone subscribers got emergency messages pushed directly to their phones. “Imminent Threat Alert,” read one that came in just after 9:30 p.m. “Go indoors immediately and remain inside. DO NOT DRIVE. Call 9-1-1 for emergencies only.” (Here’s a fuzzy photo of a friend’s phone.)

In those cases, New York City officials were making use of a federal program called PLAN, or the Personal Localized Alerting Network. PLAN grew out of the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act that Congress passed in 2006, and it was — somewhat fortuitously, in retrospect — tested in New York City beginning last spring, six months ahead of the rest of the country

WARN was a bid to update the old Emergency Alert System of “This is a test…” fame. Americans are getting their information from a far more diverse array of sources than in years gone by, so WARN’s purpose was to upgrade the emergency alert system to reach them through a wider variety of channels. It was also an experiment in figuring out how to take the best stuff we know about technology and apply it to emergency response. The “L” in “PLAN,” “Localized,” referred to the fact that your cell phone will know if you happen to be in the five boroughs. At launch, Mayor Michael Bloomberg explained that “given the kinds of threats made against New York City at the World Trade Center, Times Square, and other places popular with visitors and tourists, we’ll be even safer when authorities can broadcast warnings to everyone in a geographic area, regardless of where they came from or bought their phone.”

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