Apr 14 2008

Universities Might Have to Modify Emergency-Alert Systems

The Federal Communications Commission has issued technical standards and other requirements for a nationwide emergency-alert system for mobile devices that could have ripple affects for similar systems at colleges and universities.

Once the plan (unveiled on April 10) is implemented, educational institutions might have to revise how they process emergency alerts on their own mobile notification systems, says an FCC spokesman.

Colleges and universities have been busy buying and installing their own emergency-alert systems, including systems aimed at mobile devices, in the wake of recent campus attacks.

The FCC’s plan would use 90-character text messages warning of safety threats, such as terrorist attacks or health alerts, as well as extreme-weather warnings. The messages would be broadcast nationally over major wireless carrier networks to cell phones and other wireless devices. More-local alerts, such as child abductions, could also be broadcast under the plan.

Although participation in the plan is voluntary for national mobile-service providers, all four cell-phone service providers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile — indicated they would accommodate such a service and would upgrade their networks to support it.

Any alerts sent over the service would be cleared through an as-yet-undetermined government agency before being transmitted, according to the FCC.

The commission wants to implement the service by 2010.

The plan doesn’t address specifically how local and state authorities would coordinate with national emergency authorities for more localized threats, says the FCC spokesman. However, he says, the procedures for clearing a message through systems already in place at universities would likely change.

Emergency-service personnel generating alerts sparked by situations at universities would most likely have to route those messages through the government clearinghouse before sending them out through local alert systems, says the FCC official.