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Subject: RE: (DHS) Coming Soon To Your Cell Phone: Text Emergency Alerts

And I suspect not a standard in use or in sight. Please correct me if I am wrong!
Coming Soon To Your Cell Phone: Text Emergency Alerts


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The Homeland Security Department has begun updating the Cold War-era Emergency Alert System following an executive order issued last month by the White House. One of the new requirements of the system is the capability to deliver messages based on an individual's geographic location.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency conducted a series of tests earlier this month with 24 public television stations across the country that showed how they could use digital television broadcasts to disseminate public alerts to traditional broadcast outlets as well as wireless devices, cable TV channels and satellite radio.

In addition, a Federal Communications Commission meeting Aug. 3 is expected to address the role of the wireless industry in the new alert system. Depending on the final conclusions, cell phones and other wireless devices could become the newest way for the government to deliver critical information after a natural disaster, terrorist attack or even a serious traffic accident.

One company hoping to cash in on the new requirements is Manassas, Virginia-based SquareLoop Inc., which has developed a location-based messaging system for wireless devices.

In February and March, SquareLoop tested its system with the City of Manassas, delivering messages - including evacuation information, Amber alerts for missing children and traffic congestion updates to specific geographic locations within city limits - to 30 volunteer emergency responders on their Motorola and RIM Blackberry phones on the Sprint iDEN network.

Click image to enlarge.

Two things distinguish SquareLoop's technology, according to COO Joe Walsh. Messages are delivered based on geographic location without physical tracking, and they arrive with their own unique tone to differentiate them from other text messages.

On top of that, SquareLoop can send messages in multiple languages and uses text to speech conversion software to deliver a message to a disabled person as an audio file - two requirements stated in last month's executive order by the White House. The company also scrapped the 140-character limit to include more information inside an alert.

Walsh insists SquareLoop is mindful of personal privacy because the company doesn't track a person's location. Instead, it relies on an application downloaded on the phone and the phone's wireless receiver to filter messages, which contain a target location and time frame. The phone then determines if the message applies.

"We don't need to know where someone is because we're pushing all that out to the edge of the network, really out to the cell phone," Walsh says.

In response to a traffic accident or a biological agent release, SquareLoop can send messages only to those people in the vicinity of the affected area, even days afterward. Emergency response teams can designate, on mapping software, the area in which a given message applies. For those outside that location, the message is archived in case they enter it later.

"All messages have a lifespan," CEO Tom Stroup says about the alerts, which can be sent via a Web-based interface or existing emergency management systems. "If there's a toxic spill it may be a dangerous area for two hours, not just affecting the people in the area at the time" of the spill.

SquareLoop got a boost in January when Morgan O'Brien, founder and former chairman of Nextel Communications, was named chairman of its advisory board.

There are different kinds of location-based technologies, but what sets SquareLoop apart is that it doesn't require any action on the part of the cell phone user, says Matt Vartabedian, research manager at iGR, Inc.

"If your geography changes, you would not receive alerts for the area you were not in," he says. In other words, people who live in Chicago wouldn't receive alerts about an evacuation of the Sears Tower, for example, if they were out of town for some reason.

That's not the case with other providers. Roam Secure, Inc. of Arlington, Virginia, also sends text-based emergency alerts via text messages, but it does not target an individual's location. The company's citizen warnings system, in place in 18 jurisdictions in and around the District of Columbia as well as Jefferson Davis Parish outside of New Orleans and the City and County of San Francisco, sends out information based on the home address of a wireless device.

Roam Secure, whose alerts cover traffic, weather and other emergencies, also operates systems specifically for first responder teams and for continuity of operations for government agencies and businesses.

President Harry Truman established the first national alert system in 1951. Its original purpose was to give the president a means to address the country in case of a national emergency, but by 1963, the system also transmitted state and local emergency information.

Since then, local emergency management personnel have used the EAS structure to relay local emergency messages via broadcast stations, cable, and wireless cable systems.

Earlier this month, FEMA distributed test messages over the Public Broadcasting Service's satellite system to local public television stations using a technology called datacasting, a one-way broadcast service that, when combined with an existing high-speed network, can stream video or transmit large files to thousands of locations simultaneously.

Public safety officials could use datacasting to pinpoint specific locations to receive messages and they could also use it to distribute information over a variety of media, such as cell phones, PDAs, pagers and computers. Datacasts are transmitted through a digital television signal and a receiver hooked up to a personal computer, laptop or computer network. The datacast receiver separates the data bits from the television programming stream, allowing this data to be manipulated and saved to any software program.

Carl Reed, PhD
CTO and Executive Director Specification Program
The OGC: Helping the World to Communicate Geographically
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