New York and Washington, D.C. are organizing the Commercial Mobile Alert System, which will direct emergency messages to cellphones in case of a terrorist attack, natural disaster or other emergencies.
This system could have been put to use last year to warn New Yorkers of the destructive tornadoes that hit Brooklyn and Queens.
There will be three levels of messages, ranging from a critical national alert from the president to warnings about impending or occurring national disasters to alerts about missing or abducted children. People will be able to opt out of receiving all but the presidential alerts.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski says the goal is to ultimately install the system throughout the United States.
A special chip is required to allow the phone to receive the messages. Some smartphones already have the chip, and software updates will be available when the network goes online later this year.
The chips will not allow government agencies to collect information about the phones’ users, said Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Fugate said cell phones turned on in the direct vicinity of a disaster – an evacuation zone, for instance – would receive a message warning them of the impending danger. The alert would show up on the phone’s front screen, instead of the traditional text message inbox, and arrive with a distinct ring and likely a vibration.