In NYC today, near the site of a defining event in US history, the US Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) announced they are soon going live with a new system to send emergency alerts to mobile phones in select geographic areas. The events of 9/11 put emergency notification systems to the ultimate test…and those systems failed. As a first responder who took part in recovery efforts, I saw the consequences of failure.

We at ELERTS commend the efforts and intentions of FEMA in trying to fix the failures of the past with new technology and new systems. However, while their efforts and intentions around mobile technologies are headed in the right direction, much more is needed.

Referred to as the Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN), and based on the Commercial MobileAlert System (CMAS) specification, the effort has been in development since 2006, to provide a way to send presidential alerts, imminent threats and amber alerts to mobile phones. You may be surprised to learn that the federal government’ s newest mobile emergency system is limited to sending up to 90 characters of text as the emergency message. Unfortunately, PLAN/CMAS does not take into consideration the huge advances that have occurred in smartphone technologies, nor the massive adoption of smartphones by the general public, particularly in the last few years.

The implementation of CMAS / PLAN in some ways is going backwards, even from the 25 year old SMS technology, which at least offered a lowest common denominator method to reach any mobile phone. CMAS / PLAN is not backward compatible with the over 300 million mobile phones already in place in the United States. Plus this appears to be a regressive solution, reducing the original 160 character SMS limit to just 90 characters. There is only so much you can say to the general public in 90 characters.

CMAS / PLAN does attempt to provide control and prioritization of emergency notifications by putting its 90 character emergency message at the top of your inbox, sounding a special ringtone and vibrating the phone to get your attention.  Not many people will be hearing the new ringtone anytime soon, given the lack of backward compatibility with existing phones.

CMAS / PLAN also perpetuates a model of uni-directional and linear information flow in the age of massive information sharing by social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

While SMS texting remains a component of an overall emergency notification solution, the capabilities and open nature of today’s mobile technology presents a chance for a step change in how government can protect the people, and how the people can help them do so in the heat of an event. In short, with massive installed base of smartphones, we believe that embracing these new devices to their fullest, presents the path of greatest opportunity. In an emergency, control is good, but cooperation and communication are more productive.

Phones such as the iPhone, Blackberry and the many phones based on Google’s Android operating system are flooding the market, and dominating the public consciousness – for consumers and businesses alike. CMAS / PLAN does not acknowledge these smart and capable devices. What are people expected to do with 90 characters of information? (Which, by the way, cannot include hyperlinks).

By leveraging the new feature-rich mobile platforms, our government could have chosen not only deliver an alert, but they could have delivered context, commentary and guidance. They could have done so while not only maintaining control, but also maintaining calm. A photo or evacuation map in a time of crisis can make an incredible difference in the quality of the emergency alert.

If a mobile user’s phone can accept multimedia emergency alerts, they should be able to take advantage of that dramatically better information. People in harm’s way need the best information available to mitigate threats. Additionally, because of the bidirectional, social nature of smart platforms, government can also benefit from additional intelligence and information generated from the very citizens they are trying to protect.

Sending emergency alerts as text messages to smartphones is just not a smart thing to do.