NYC uses PLAN alerts to reach mobile users in Hurricane Sandy-affected areas

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As Hurricane Sandy headed for New York City earlier this week, the city's Office of Emergency Management sent unsolicited mobile alerts over a system it was the first in the United States to launch.

"Emergency Alert in this area until 8:00 AM GMT Take Shelter Now NYC_OEM," read a text that one New Yorker received Oct. 29 at 8:36 p.m. EDT, then tweeted a photo of minutes later.

The city launched in May 2011 its Personal Localized Alerting Network system, which can send text alerts to mobile devices in areas affected by emergencies.

The system, known both as PLAN and the Commercial Mobile Alert System, is a partnership between the wireless industry, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Communications Commission. Authorized officials can create emergency alerts that PLAN authenticates and wireless carriers push out from cell towers in the affected area.

Users do not have to sign up or pay for alerts because PLAN-capable devices automatically receive them. Participation by state and local governments is voluntary, but they must enroll as message originators--only 18 states and 46 cities and counties had enrolled as message originators as of June.

Some alert recipients in New York shared their reactions on Twitter. "NYC_OEM, could your Emergency Alert text have come with a more unsettling alarm? Didn't know my phone could make that sound," tweeted Ben Deutsch, a self-described Manhattan resident, on Oct. 29 at 8:38 p.m EDT.

Nine minutes later, Twitter user Heidi David posted a similar response along with the hashtag #UrFreakinMeOut. As another New Yorker noted in a tweet, "The emergency alert sirens play with the text."

Federal agencies also offered information over Twitter and mobile apps. Each of FEMA's 10 geographic regions has its own Twitter account, and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate maintains a public list of them through his own account. Regions affected by Sandy used Twitter to share advice and information.

Fugate also sent dozens of similar tweets from his personal account, which he says he runs himself.

Smartphone owners could also use FEMA's apps for Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), BlackBerry and Android devices to find safety tips and information on shelters, and also to maintain a checklist of items to keep on hand in an emergency.

The National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center have both optimized their websites for mobile devices. The NWS mobile site provides forecasts, and the NHC posts its latest storm advisories and satellite images.

For more:
- go to New York City's May 2011 announcement of its PLAN system launch

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