A few years ago I read a book about disasters, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why. It describes how if people were warned about emergencies early and responded as soon as they heard the warnings most deaths due to fire and similar emergencies could be prevented.
Last week I spoke to Ken Post of Alert Systems Inc. about a system they have developed to get warnings out reliably to the people affected by an emergency using the mobile phone network. At first glance, this sounds like another phone app looking for something to do with all that computing and communications power people carry around with them. In reality, targeted emergency communication has been something governments have wanted for decades.
- Ringdown - This is a system that can place phone calls to a handful of people all at the same time. It has been used to wake up firefighters or police officers in an emergency. It does not support contacting larger groups such as entire neighborhoods.
- Pagers - Replaced Ringdown for alerting emergency workers.
- Reverse 911 (R-911) - Similar to Ringdown systems but can call more people. Calling everyone in a mid-sized city would take roughly eight hours. It does not reach all mobile phones. My city used R-911 a few years ago to alert residents of a neighborhood two miles east of me of an armed murder suspect being pursued on foot by police in the area.
- Weather Radio Alert - Weather radios have a feature that allows them to come out of standby automatically if they detect a warning signal.
- Air Raid Sirens
- Emergency Messages on Mainstream Media Outlets
The authorities who use these systems are not satisfied with them. They need something that can contact 80% of the people affected by an emergency within 90 seconds. It must contact only affected people because people ignore warnings from sources that frequently give false alarms.
The US federal government is pursuing an emergency communications initiative called the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) aimed at allowing authorities to send text messages to mobile phones in an emergency. Alert Systems Inc believes this system is inadequate. It does not allow police officers to send messages to people within a specific area in an emergency. It does not support sending messages to people affiliated with an area, such people who live, work, or go to school in a certain area. Alert Systems approach would allow people to subscribe to affiliations with a Q-R code. For example when parents enroll their kids in school, they could subscribe to the warning list for that school and receive warnings affecting the area of the school without regard to the location of the phone at the time of the emergency.
The illustration below represents people with various affiliations to emergencies with Xs of different colors. It shows the need to alert people by affiliation, by geographic location (not just proximity to a particular cell tower), and without regard to state or county boundaries.
I did not have the opportunity to interview any supporters of CMAS. I would be eager to tell that side of the story when I find someone who would like to talk about it.
An interesting part of the Alert Systems approach is that it introduces a home-mounted alarm (prototype shown to the right) similar to a smoke detector. This alarm has a mobile phone chipset to connect to the 3G network. It has the ability to generate various types of alert including an 85dB alarm similar to a fire alarm. That loudest alarm would be reserved for confirmed emergencies affect that house. This could make air raid sirens seem like a crude warning method. When my first child was born, the doctor verified we had a smoke detector, carbon monoxide detector, and fire extinguisher before we took the baby home. I suspect by the time they grow up and have kids, some sort of networked alert device will have been added to the list.