It was three years ago that the FCC issued a series of orders that identified requirements for a Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), via which commercial mobile service providers would transmit emergency alerts to their subscribers’ wireless handsets. The development of CMAS was mandated by the 2006 Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act, which also required wireless operators to declare whether they voluntarily issue such alerts.

Yesterday Sprint Nextel announced that it is the first U.S. operator to offer wireless emergency alerts on its mobile network. Such alerts allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to accept and deliver warning messages to wireless networks from the president, the National Weather Service and state and local emergency operations centers.

Later this year, Sprint will conduct the nation's first test of wireless emergency alerts in New York City, along with the New York City Office of Emergency Management, the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate, and FEMA. The test will deliver a series of geo-targeted wireless alerts to multiple Sprint mobile phones strategically located in the city’s five boroughs: Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island.

Here’s how CMAS is supposed to work: Emergency-alert origination teams will be located in local and state operation centers. Once it is determined that an alert is necessary, it will be written in 90 characters or less, sent to FEMA’s alert aggregator, and then transmitted to cellular providers for dissemination. Because each message will be geo-tagged, it only will be sent to the people who are in the vicinity of the impacted area.

While CMAS has taken three years to come to fruition, the technology has not become obsolete. SMS still remains the common denominator among all cell phone users. While the advent of high-end smartphones has brought a lot of innovative technology, the public-safety community still needs an SMS element if it wants to efficiently communicate with the public.

That ability, of course, is one of the primary drivers for the development of NG-911 systems. The idea is to enable citizens to text an emergency alert or even a picture or video of a crime in progress to the local 911 call center. (Interestingly, cameras are pretty much becoming a common denominator on phones as well). But NG-911 is slowly gestating, with many moving parts, and some cities aren’t waiting for it to emerge.

For instance, the city of Boston is looking at ways of implementing NG-911-like services without having the actual framework in place, by leveraging the fact that so many of its citizens are armed with smartphones. It already has deployed iPhone apps that allow citizens to snap pictures of potholes and graffiti and send them to the relevant city department. The idea is to make SMS more of a tip line. Meanwhile, other cities have deployed anonymous text-messaging lines.

Undeniably, many innovative things are coming down the pike in the mobile world centered on apps and other high-tech capabilities. But as Boston and other cities are demonstrating, SMS still can be part of that innovation.

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