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State CIOs Plan System To Warn Public Of Danger

Proposals call for a system that would be used to send alerts--targeted down to an individual ZIP code. The warnings would show up on mobile phones, PCs, PDAs, as well as TV and radio.

Amber Alerts, used to rapidly disseminate news of child abductions, are getting a lot of attention from federal and state governments looking for better ways to warn the public of imminent danger such as threats to public safety. The ultimate goal: a standard, nationwide system for alerting the public.

The National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO) is planning a pilot that would operate similarly to Amber Alerts and could enable states to warn people of everything from overturned trucks hauling gas to a chemical attack. On the federal level, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is already in the midst of such a pilot.

Amber Alerts are sent to broadcasters--which stop programs to announce details of suspected kidnappings--and directly to the public via E-mail, text messages, electronic roadside signs, and pop-ups on computer screens.

Safety information from governments tends to flow like water from a hydrant: If you aren't standing in front of it, you aren't getting wet. A good example is storm warnings that can only alert people who are listening to a radio or watching TV when the warning is issued. The creators of Amber Alerts have honed what might be called the capillary model of information distribution: Alerts start in a central conduit, namely a Web portal, and flow out to a variety of devices.

Chris Dixon, an issues coordinator with NASCIO, says the organization is in the early stages of planning its pilot--coordinating with DHS to minimize overlap in the projects. The goal is to create a nationwide alert network called the All Alert System, Dixon says.

"It'd be state-implemented and state-activated," Dixon says. Governors could use the system at their discretion either for their states alone or in concert with other governors.

The system would be able to send messages--targeted down to an individual ZIP code, if necessary. Dixon says he's already thinking about ways to harden the network against hacking and crashes.

The pilot is expected to be running by the end of the first quarter, despite the fact NASCIO hasn't made a short list of locations for the test. By August, NASCIO must report to Congress on results of the pilot. There's no budget for the pilot yet.

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is in the midst of its Digital Emergency System pilot project. Reynold Hoover, director of the office of national security coordination, says FEMA is mandated by the Intelligence Reform Act to work with NASCIO to minimize duplicative efforts.

"We're proposing that they become part of [our] pilot," which began in October and should end in March, Hoover says. FEMA is testing the practicality of using the digital signals of public TV stations as the conduit that would carry warnings to mobile phones, PDAs, satellite broadcasts, cable companies, and others.

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