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California to Deploy Nation's First Mass Mobile Alert System

California and Sprint will team up to deploy system that aims to save lives and protect property by delivering warnings and safety information via text alerts to wireless phones in specified locations.

California and Sprint have officially joined forces to spearhead the nation's first mass mobile alert system, which means warnings about terrorist attacks, wildfires, hurricanes, school shootings and other emergency situations could soon be at citizens' fingertips.

The California Emergency Management Agency (Cal EMA) and Sprint announced Tuesday, Aug. 24, plans to deploy the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), a public safety tool that uses technology to deliver warnings and safety information via text alerts to wireless phones in specified areas. The first CMAS pilot program will begin in San Diego County this fall, in partnership with the county's Office of Emergency Services (OES).

The CMAS technology works much like the emergency alerts broadcast on television or through land line phones. But the main difference is that emergency text messages will be sent to mobile phones in a defined geographic area, which could be as large as a county or city or as small as a few blocks.

For example, the emergency text alerts would come in handy for residents impacted by a mudslide or flood; students and faculty locked down on a campus due to a threat; mall shoppers or airport travelers in the vicinity of a suspicious package; or even sports fans leaving a stadium who need to know where to go if there's a nearby highway accident or chemical spill. Focusing on target areas help emergency management officials reach the right people in precise locations, which stakeholders say could save lives and protect property on a local, state or national scale.

"California is proud to lead the country in having the ability to instantly alert residents via their mobile phones to an emergency or disaster specific to their current location," said Cal EMA Secretary Matthew Bettenhausen in a release. "This technology, along with Sprint's seasoned record of providing reliable wireless and network support during the state's wildfires, floods and earthquakes will prove a tremendous resource to the country's public safety and emergency management community."

The announcement represents a big step for CMAS, a national program the FCC established in response to the 2006 Warning, Alert and Response Network Act to provide emergency information from federal, state and local officials about natural disasters, terrorist threats and other potential dangers. With the CMAS network, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will be able to accept and aggregate alerts from the president of the United States, the National Weather Service, and state and local emergency operations centers.

But before the system can launch across the nation, the technology must be tested. Starting this fall, OES will assess the public safety tool across urban, suburban and rural areas with 100 phones distributed to law enforcement agencies, fire agencies and other partners. The technology may be available for public use in about a year, according to OES.

During the 2007 wildfires, the San Diego County OES was able to evacuate 515,000 residents, but this new technology will expand its reach to contact everyone in an impacted area, including tourists and visitors, according to Leslie Luke, group program manager at OES.

"In San Diego, a number of people come to visit us and go to the beach or come from out of state," Luke said. "If they don't have a hard line phone, we cannot reach them through normal channels and they may not have registered their cell phones. With this new system, we'll be able to geocode a particular area and reach people based on cell towers, including tourists who may be here for business or pleasure."

In the pilot, the alerts will be sent to Sprint over a secure interface, enabled by Alcatel-Lucent's Broadcast Message Center, and then delivered to cell phones using the CMAS technology. Text-based CMAS alerts will also reach hearing or vision-impaired wireless customers through vibrations and audio signals.