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U.S. plans emergency alert system to warn by pinging cell phones, Internet

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON- The government soon will be pinging people's cell phones and posting on Web sites to warn Americans of impending disasters as it updates its Cold War-era emergency alert system.

By the end of next year, the Homeland Security Department expects to be able to send emergency alerts to cell phones, Internet sites, and hand-held computers to reach more people before catastrophe strikes, spokesman Aaron Walker said Monday. It also seeks to transmit warnings on cable TV channels and satellite radio to supplement the government's long-tested but never-used national alerts on network channels and AM radio stations.

"Anything that can receive a text message will receive the alert," said Walker, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is running the alert system for Homeland Security. "We find that the new digital system is more secure, it's faster and it enables us to reach a wide array of citizens and alert them to pending disasters."

In 1951, President Harry Truman created the nation's first alert system, which required radio stations to broadcast only on certain frequencies during emergencies. That evolved into the current practice tested on TV and radio stations throughout the Cold War, which solemnly intoned: "This is a test of the emergency broadcast system. This is only a test."

Only the president can order a national emergency alert. The system was initially designed to warn Americans of a nuclear attack, but President George W. Bush last month ordered Homeland Security to extend the alert "for situations of war, terrorist attack, natural disaster, or other hazards to public safety and well-being."

FEMA will demonstrate the system, still in its pilot stages, at a public television station Wednesday in suburban Virginia. The Association of Public Television Stations is partnering with FEMA to transmit the alerts to receiving networks _ including telephone, Internet and traditional broadcast outlets.

The public TV stations have so far raised $1.1 billion (euro860 million) _ a third of it from the federal government _ to convert antiquated technology at its 176 stations to digital systems that can transmit the alerts, said APTS president John Lawson.

Overall, the new warning system is expected to cost $5.5 million (euro4.3 million) to test and deploy nationally, and $1 million (euro790,000) annually to maintain it, Walker said.

The government has been testing the system in the Washington area since October 2004, Lawson said, and this year expanded its pilot program to 23 public television stations nationwide. Walker said it will be rolled out to the public and emergency responders in stages, beginning in states along the Gulf of Mexico coastline that were ransacked by hurricanes last year. Later it will be put in major cities.

Peter P. Swire, chief privacy counselor during the Clinton administration and law professor at the Ohio State University, questioned whether the alerts might "be like spam or a telemarketing call" to people who don't want to receive the government warnings. "Before the broadcast happens, people should likely have a choice whether to receive it," Swire said.

Walker said consumers will have a chance to opt out of the alerts.

Lawson, the public television association president, said some glitches remain as telephone companies and other networks grapple with trying to alert all of their customers at the same time without jamming their systems. But he said the alerts could be transmitted by text messages, audio recordings, video or graphics _ opening the possibility of sending out additional detailed information to specific sectors, like hospitals or emergency responders.

But for alerting regular Americans, "we're hoping that your cell phone will go off saying something bad is happening, and you need to get to a TV or radio to find out what's going on," Lawson said.


On the Net:

Federal Emergency Management Agency: http://www.fema.gov/

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