On July 7, President Obama signed an executive order intended to strengthen the resiliency of emergency communications during disasters. The order establishes the policy that the Federal Government must be able to communicate with the public, other agencies, other levels of government, and industry “at all times and under all circumstances.”
Toward this end, the order sets up a committee to make recommendations on how to improve the survivability, resilience, and future architecture of national security and emergency communications. This group, consisting of Federal officials from across government, will collaborate with industry on the exploration of technologies that could achieve these goals for various communications systems. It seems like a lot of discussion is focusing on the order’s provision for using private sector communications networks in case of emergency, and privacy concerns surrounding it. Our interest is mainly in its implications for alerts and warnings.
Though the order does not explicitly mention emergency alerts and warnings, these forms of public safety communications ought to be part of the conversation, given the importance of communications with the public during disasters.
CMAS, in particular, should be of interest to this new committee. This is a system that was developed with the express intent of succeeding despite network congestion, using cell broadcast to transmit messages even when traffic is overwhelming the network.
However, there are still survivability issues. Network failure (e.g., destruction of cell towers) or poor coverage would keep a CMAS message from reaching recipients. This is where this committee could focus on future alerting systems that don’t require as much infrastructure. Peer-to-peer communications (like we’ve seen in the Airmobs project at MIT Media Lab) could be leveraged to auto-relay messages between devices, including those that don’t have coverage in a certain area—thus removing the risk of infrastructure failure.
It will be interesting to see how this process evolves. Certainly, thinking about the next generation of alerting–and the industry trends and technological innovations that will enable and impact it–should be a vital part of the committee’s charge to create a long term strategic vision for survivable and resilient emergency communications. We look forward to reporting more on this initiative as it unfolds.