The Truth About CMAS: Benefits and Limitations

The Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) was activated nationwide this past weekend, enabling federal, state, territorial, tribal and local government officials to send 90-character, geographically-targeted text alerts to the public, warning of imminent threats to life and property. Here are some of the system’s pros and cons.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), working in cooperation with the telecommunications industry, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other governmental and non-governmental organizations, has activated CMAS (Commercial Mobile Alert System), its next-generation emergency notification system. It will enable federal, state, territorial, tribal and local government officials to send 90-character, geographically-targeted text alerts to the public, warning of imminent threats to life and property. CMAS is also known as “Wireless Emergency Alerts” or “Personal Localized Alerting Network” (PLAN).

Emergency managers at schools, hospitals, industrials, businesses and other organizations are wondering how the new system will affect them and whether they will need to take any steps to prepare for CMAS’s arrival. This white paper aims to answer these concerns, cutting through the confusion surrounding CMAS by describing the system’s origins, how it will operate, and who will be in charge. This document also presents CMAS’s benefits and limitations and analyzes the system’s impact on companies, schools and other enterprises that need to issue emergency notifications to employees, community members and other types of individuals.

How CMAS Works

CMAS is a voluntary service designed to allow federal, state and local authorities to send alerts via a federal (FEMA) gateway to participating wireless carriers who, in turn, transmit the alerts to subscribers’ mobile handsets.

CMAS generates three types of notifications:

  1. Presidential Alerts — A message sent from the President of the United States on a matter of vital national importance. A Presidential Alert might relate to a hostile attack, civil disturbance, or other event of national urgency.
  2. Imminent Threat Alerts — News that a terrorist attack, an act of war or a serious weather event (such as a tornado or hurricane) is about to occur at or near the user’s current location.
  3. America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response (AMBER) Alerts — AMBER Alerts are emergency messages broadcast when a law enforcement agency determines that a child has been abducted and is in imminent danger. The broadcasts include information about the child and abductor that could lead to the child’s recovery. Information such as the child’s physical description and information about the abductor’s vehicle are generally included.

To gain the handset user’s attention, CMAS alerts are accompanied by a unique audio signal and device vibration. Subscribers automatically receive all alerts, but they can choose to opt out of receiving Imminent Threat and AMBER Alerts and there are no opt-in requirements. CMAS alerts do not preempt calls in progress.

All CMAS alerts are created by FEMA-approved senders, typically state, county and city emergency communication managers, and then transmitted to a FEMA gateway. Alerts authorized by the FEMA gateway are authenticated and verified, then passed on to the wireless carriers for delivery to subscribers within the emergency zone. Alerts are delivered to ALL handsets on participating carriers’ networks within the targeted geographic area. Public television stations are required by the FCC to function as CMAS distribution systems feeding alerts to mobile carriers.

Mobile carriers covering more than 96% of U.S. subscribers have agreed to participate in the alerts, including national carriers AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint, and handset providers have agreed to make all new phones CMAS-capable by April 2012. While CMAS participation is voluntary, non-participating carriers are required to inform their subscribers of this fact.

Benefits and Limitations

CMAS offers several benefits unmatched by broadcast-based notification technologies. Most importantly, the system delivers notifications directly to end users’ handsets, rather than relying on individuals being within earshot of a radio or TV (although users can choose to block incoming messages other than Presidential Alerts). Another advantage is CMAS’ operational range, which can be limited to an area as small as a specific county or large city, allowing alerts to be targeted without any “spillover” coverage to people in unaffected areas.

While CMAS promises to significantly improve government outreach during emergencies, the system also has several important and inherent shortcomings. The biggest drawback is that FEMA plans to maintain tight control over CMAS operations — only authorized entities will be able to originate alerts. FEMA maintains that strict oversight is necessary to avoid the “car alarm syndrome”—the creation of superfluous and false alarms that threaten to create annoyance, confusion and end user apathy. Therefore, all alert originating organizations must be authorized by state authorities and FEMA.

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