California Eyes SMS Emergency Alerts

While the major media outlets have laudably distanced themselves from ongoing Virginia Tech coverage, the ripples continue to radiate out:  California State officials announced this week that they expect to provide a statewide cell phone alert system within the next 12 to 14 months.

Bay Area officials are leading the push to broadcast cellphone warnings about threats ranging from campus massacres, road calamities, wildfires, and quake aftermaths to terrorist attacks, floods, and tsunamis.  (Not to be negative, though).

With utility regulators’ backing and no formal legislation required, authorities are planning to use cell towers to broadcast tone and text warnings of imminent dangers to all mobile devices in a specific zone.  A handset, for example, would emit a sound unlike the typical ring, followed by a text message with details.

A similar program has actually already been in effect in Washington DC since November 2006:  Citizens can text 23622 (D-C-E-M-A) from any cellular device to sign up to receive emergency text messages through the city’s DC Text Alert system. 

These kinds of programs don’t invade citizens’ privacy, officials say, since they deliver a mass message to all phones near a designated communications relay tower.  And while no information as to technology or third-party involvement has been announced for the California system, it will likely mirror (or even use) those from vendors such as Rave Wireless, Omnilert, and Alertus Technologies.

“Today’s kids aren’t listening to the radio; they’re listening to their iPods,” explains Brian Crum, a spokesman for Omnilert (who also reported receiving more than 600 emails and phone calls from universities and colleges in the week following the shootings).  “They’re not watching TV; they’re watching YouTube.  For a [school or government] to think it can update everyone through traditional media is no longer going to work.”  And given a nationwide broadband and mobile penetration rate of better than 70%, the same can arguably be said of the populous as a whole.

And while the emphasis now is on emergency services, these mobile-alert specialty shops are also looking to monetize the text message in other ways—including opting-in to receive sports scores, notification that grades have been posted online, and even advertising featuring local coupons.

Still, there remain signup barriers:  Washington DC’s alert system, for example, has barely cleared 25,000 registrations.  So for California’s initiative—as well as schools’, to a lesser extent—to work, there may have to be some additional economic incentives put into place.  Perhaps the onus should be on carriers to offer these types of text alerts at a discounted rate?  Or maybe they’re simply included in the general “911” tax that appears on the mobile bill every month?

Regardless, this concept is a brilliant use of emerging media to address an important social need.  And while those of us old enough to fondly remember the Emergency Broadcast System alerts which barged unpredictably into Family Ties episodes during the 80s, nostalgia must inevitably give way to technology. 

This isn’t, after all, just a test.