- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The government has your cell phone number, and it’s going to send you text messages whether you like it or not. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski joined Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator W. Craig Fugate in New York City on Tuesday to announce a multimillion dollar federal program that, in theory, will notify mobile phone users in times of grave emergency. Like so many Washington-centric ideas, this one was obsolete long before it got off the drawing board.

Wireless phone providers have agreed to distribute “Homeland Security” messages that will automatically pop up on cell phone screens whenever a government agency determines there is a threat or disaster in the vicinity of the phone user. Notifications include alerts whenever a child is reported missing, which often happens during custody fights between family members. Customers must actively opt-out of these “features” if they do not want to be disturbed while going about their business, but there will be no way to suppress unwanted communications from the president.

That means, while driving along, a special “emergency” ring tone might sound on phones nationwide. In 31 states, plus the District, reading that urgent notification while behind the wheel could set the user up to be ticketed for violating anti-text messaging laws. That’s a sign that maybe, just maybe, this feel-good scheme hasn’t been fully thought through.

In 2006, Congress dreamed the idea of requiring federal agencies to come up with a “national alert system” that would serve as an updated version of the warning system already in place for broadcast television. When the legislation was first introduced, iPhones did not exist and Twitter was in its infancy. The fundamental difference these technologies have created in the ensuing years became apparent last week when news of the death of Osama bin Laden spread across the Internet more than an hour before President Obama made his official announcement.

That was a brilliant demonstration of how the private sector has already created its own sophisticated information distribution network capable of beating the government every time. Anyone who wants alerts can get them from a variety of reliable news outlets. In fact, doing so is almost certainly going to be more effective than relying on a clock-punching bureaucrat to be at his desk during an emergency - especially if it happens after hours or on the weekend.

Consider what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, the first time the existing emergency alert system could have legitimately been used to provide information. It was never activated. That’s because government agencies had no idea what was going on during that terrorist attack. Just like the rest of the public, senior congressional leaders relied on Fox News, CNN and news articles forwarded on their BlackBerries to keep them up-to-date on what was happening.

The government alert system is a symptom of the inside-the-Beltway mentality that insists anything important must be done at the direction of Uncle Sam. Whether it was Sept. 11 or Hurricane Katrina or any other incident in recent memory, the media have proved far more on top of the situation than the departments and agencies charged with keeping us safe. If the cellphone alert program should exist at all, it ought to be entirely voluntary. Customers should not have to go out of their way to escape being notified 20 minutes after a tornado strikes that “there may be high winds in the area.”

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