Companies providing emergency alert services via mobile devices across campuses, large cities and even entire regions have proliferated in recent years in response to high-profile shootings at universities and major weather incidents such as tornadoes and floods. While these companies tout reliability because of the redundancy mechanisms they say they have in place, mobile operators continue to warn that the unicast nature of text-messaging systems means they can’t guarantee delivery of these vital messages. But that is changing as operators look to deploy a broadcast technology capable of reliably transmitting messages to targeted geographic areas.
The emergency alerting market isn’t as full of snake oil as it used to be. Several universities have been stung in the past by fly-by-night companies that essentially compiled emergency alerts and transmitted them via the highly unreliable Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) — the Internet standard for e-mail transmission across IP networks — and expecting mobile operators to deliver them all. Unfortunately, the mobile network recognizes these messages as spam and keeps them from moving through.
“The ones you read about in the paper are SMTP messages,” said Bryan Crum, spokesman for alerting company Omnilert, the maker of a unified notification system known as Amerilert. Crum said the company uses redundant servers and pushes messages out via multiple wireless operators, as well as through SMTP.
“We have multiple redundant failovers and we have relationships with operators,” Crum said. “In some cases, we have direct connections to the carriers, and in other cases, we go through aggregators and go through the SMTP when smaller carriers don’t have that advanced connection.”
Omnilert recently announced that a number of fire departments and rescue squads are dropping their pagers in favor of an emergency dispatch solution that allows messages to be transmitted onto a host of mobile devices that fire officials already carry around. The primary draw is the fact that firefighters can receive messages on their cell phones rather than carrying around a pager. Moreover, the Web-based access means a command officer can use his BlackBerry or any computer — rather than being tied to an in-house network computer — to send alerts.
The Countryside Fire Protection District in Vernon Hills, Ill., deployed the system to its 85 personnel and uses it on a daily basis for emergency alerts. Meanwhile, the McLane/Black Lake Fire Department in Olympia, Wash., has more than 100 members in its department, and the system allows the department to coordinate its multiple groups — ranging from volunteer personnel to state fire mobilization groups. Both agencies report that the system hasn’t encountered any failures.
Omnilert targets a number of groups with its Amerilert system, including public-safety agencies, schools, non-profits, corporations and government entities. The company recently introduced Amerilert 3.0, which allows messages to be sent from a Web-based interface to a host of message media that include cell phones, e-mail, Twitter feeds, public-address systems, voice calls, TV and digital signage.
Despite the redundancy measures, failures continue to happen. Virginia Tech — where a lone gunman killed 32 people and then himself in April 2007 — now uses a text-message emergency-alert system from 3n Global. When the university used it for the first time in the fall of 2008, after what was reported to be gunshots turned out to be a nail gun, the system failed to deliver all of the messages.
In an interview before the failure, 3n — like many companies playing in the space — said it leverages multiple communications paths to help ensure that emergency alerts reach their intended destination.
Jay Pabley, director of network development with Sprint Nextel, said that while redundancy always is important with these types of systems to ensure they are highly reliable and scalable, the fundamental problem is the nature of the mobile network itself.
“This is about unicast vs. broadcast,” he said. Today’s text messages are designed to be a communication between a single sender and a single receiver over a network, whereas a broadcast network will allow messages to broadcast to multiple users, even in defined geographical areas.
Last fall, Patrick Traynor, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, released a study warning of the limitations of third-party text-messaging services. In it, he said that text messaging over cellular systems is viewed by many as a reliable way to communicate when voice networks are clogged. “Unfortunately, such systems will not work as advertised,” he said.
Through modeling and simulation, Traynor demonstrated that today’s cellular systems “not only cannot widely disseminate such messages quickly, but also that the additional traffic created by third-party [emergency alert systems] may disrupt other traffic such as voice communications, including that of emergency responders or the public to 911 services.”
That’s why the mobile industry is holding out for a national alert system using broadcast technologies. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is expected to release a federal alert gateway in the second quarter of 2010. Operators like Sprint are waiting for that release to understand what the final interface specification will be so that they can work on connecting to that gateway, Pabley said.
“Our intention is to interface with that gateway when available, do the integration testing to make sure we’ve defined our gateway to work with the federal gateway and proceed further,” Pabley said.
Sprint and other operators — along with representatives from the FCC, the Department of Homeland Security, state and local governments, wireless vendors, and private-sector groups — make up the Commercial Mobile Service Alert Advisory Committee (CMSAAC). The group has developed recommendations on technical standards and protocols to enable commercial mobile providers to voluntarily transmit emergency alerts to their subscribers. The FCC established the committee pursuant to Section 603 of the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act of 2006.
While compliance with the WARN Act is voluntary — and wireless operators can choose their own technology to connect to the proposed nationwide emergency alert system — the industry has coalesced around technical standards and protocols needed to develop the cell broadcast infrastructure, Pabley said.
How quickly the system could be put in place depends on how fast FEMA moves and how much operators desire to implement the technology, as it’s not mandated. Pabley, while declining to reveal too many details, said Sprint will need to make changes in its network that will include introducing its own gateway and modifying end user devices. That costs money, but Pabley said operators will be allowed to transmit commercial traffic over the new system to help monetize it, and the CMSAAC has discussed pursuing reimbursement for the costs, similar to the type of reimbursement given for CALEA technology changes.
In the meantime, text-message alerting capabilities continue to evolve. For instance, software company Augusta Systems is working with a host of sectors, including public safety, the military and the enterprise market, to offer solutions that enable various devices, systems and applications to become automated via a rules-based policy engine, said Patrick Esposito, the company’s president and chief operating officer.
That means the many government agencies that heavily use technology such as video surveillance can implement software to provide an automated way to send information when an event occurs. First responders could receive an automated message of an alarm event at the time it happens. A gunshot location system coupled with video could send incident information automatically — via e-mail, SMS or text to speech — to next-generation 911 centers or mobile devices.
Robert Full, the chief of the department of emergency services with Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, said the agency is using Augusta Systems’ software to tie together a number of video cameras throughout the county, and he sees an opportunity for the system to play a role in any emergency notification solution the department might deploy in the future.
“As a society, we could do a much better job of notifying our residents and businesses, to give them advanced information any time we get it,” he said.
Crum said Omnilert offers a technology called Active Feed that takes alerts from other sources, such as the National Weather Service, and sends it to recipients via messaging, e-mail and voice calls. The company also sees a market for system monitoring. When a monitoring beacon, for instance, goes off, a text message can automatically be generated and transmitted to the appropriate people.
Esposito said that many enterprises are looking to tie together all of their security assets — such as video cameras, motion detectors and control alarms — and begin adding other assets that might include lighting control systems and heating and air-conditioning functions. He’s beginning to see cooperation between the enterprise and public safety.
“There are lots of areas where there are businesses that have campuses the size of small cities,” Esposito said. “The public and private sectors are beginning to understand the value of sharing information.”