Starting October 1, FEMA is leading a six-month pilot program to upgrade the existing Emergency Alert System to include the capability to dispatch these types of alerts to cell phones, pagers, and network-enabled PDAs carried by people within the affected area.

If a tornado was spotted in your county, for example, you’d get a text message emergency alert on your cell phone. Getting the standards-splintered cell phone industry to agree on a single approach, however, may prove difficult.

Most people are familiar with the existing Emergency Alert System; it’s what the television networks use to run the band of scrolling text alerting viewers to weather emergencies. Other people may be familiar with it as the source of the annoying 60-second monotone testing program: “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcasting System. This is only a test.” This alert signal originates from a FEMA operations center in Washington, DC, and is broadcast to 34 radio and television stations around the country, which then relay the signal to affiliates. A more recent application for the technology is the “Amber Alert” system aimed at thwarting child abductions by broadcasting the suspected perpetrator’s license information and vital statistics along with information and photographs of the child.

The FEMA test will focus on the Washington area initially, according to Reynold Hoover, director of the agency’s office for National Security Coordination. FEMA received a $10 million grant in fiscal year 2004 to explore the possibilities; Hoover says additional money has been allocated for fiscal 2005.

The pilot program is relying on digital spectrum bandwidth donated by the Association for Public Television Stations. Cellular service providers such as AT&T Wireless, T-Mobile, Cingular, and Verizon Wireless will be able to receive the signal, with the plan being that they’ll then transmit the information to their subscribers. Hoover says the organization is reaching out to the cellular network providers to participate in the program.

More here.