New Emergency Alert System Comes to Your Phone

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The emergency broadcast system got an upgrade today as a new text-alert system was unveiled at the World Trade Center site by the heads of the FCC and FEMA, along with Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The new system, called PLAN, will allow officials to send alerts to compatible phones in the event of a national or regional emergency. It will be rolled out first in New York and Washington, D.C., before coming to the rest of the country next year.

(More on FCC ‘PLAN’ Would Alert Cellphone Users of Natural Disasters)

The alerts are not standard text messages, but instead messages sent on a different channel. According to an FCC statement, doing so “ensures that emergency alerts won’t get stuck in highly congested user areas, which can happen with standard mobile voice and texting services.” It also means that you need a PLAN-capable phone to receive the messages.

If you have a qualifying mobile like the iPhone, you’ll be able to receive three types of government alerts: messages issued by the President, alerts about imminent threats, and Amber alerts. You’ll be able to unsubscribe from the threat and Amber alerts, but receiving Presidential alerts will be mandatory.

If history is any guide, however, you may not get any messages from 1600 Pennsylvania. Since the Emergency Alert System was created in 1963, it’s never been activated, despite hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Oklahoma City bombing, and 9/11. Why?

The chairman of the FCC during the 9/11 attacks, Michael Powell, says that “The explosion of 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week media networks in some ways has proven to supplant those original conceptions of a senior leader’s need to talk to the people.”

Given that it was Twitter, and not the President’s address, that recently broke the killing of Osama Bin Laden, you have to wonder whether the new service will be just as swiftly supplanted.

Jerry Brito is a contributor to TIME. Find him on Twitter at @jerrybrito. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.