Great news: Gov't just about ready to push alerts to cell phones

Are you ready to get local and “presidential” alerts on your cell phone?  If not, and you’re in New York City … too bad.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the Big Apple is ready to use cell phones to inform residents of missing-child alerts, emergencies, terror warnings, and other messages, whether people want to get them or not:

A new national alert system is set to begin in New York City that will alert the public to emergencies via cell phones.

It’s called the Personal Localized Alert Network or PLAN. Presidential and local emergency messages as well as Amber Alerts would appear on cell phones equipped with special chips and software.

The Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the system would also warn about terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

Not interested?  Well, you can opt out of all of these … except for “presidential messages.”  What exactly are “presidential messages”?  Alerts issued by the President, FEMA explains, but doesn’t get any more specific than that, except to note that “alerts involving imminent threats to safety of life” are listed as a separate category.

I don’t think a national alert system is a bad idea in concept, but shouldn’t participation be voluntary at the individual level?  Instead, the WARN Act requires participating cell carriers to have new models of phones include the PLAN chip and to push all of the messages as a default (“Customers automatically signed up,” FEMA promises).  I’m also unclear on how exactly these warnings will help, given the generally slow reaction time for announcing such warnings and the generic, uninformative nature they usually take.  Remember the old color-coding terror threat level system that the Obama administration wisely discarded this year?

FEMA argues that PLAN is a natural progression of the Emergency Broadcast System, but that required holders of government broadcasting licenses to participate, not individual consumers.  It also didn’t increase costs to television sets.  This seems more like the V-chip idea than civil defense.  For that matter, when was the last time the government actually used the EBS?  In practice, the license holders have just found it to be good business to provide their own alerts to viewers and listeners rather than wait for government to seize control of their broadcast facilities.

I can’t wait for my first “presidential message.”  Will we get the decoder ring, too?

Update: Zombie has the first five PrezMez already.