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Dutch Test Emergency Cell Phone alert

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — Cell phones throughout a downtown hotel beeped simultaneously Tuesday with an alert: there is a suspicious package in the building.
It was a drill, run by Dutch authorities testing an emergency “cell broadcasting” system that sends a text message to every mobile phone in a defined area.

Representatives from 21 national governments, New York City and the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, watched the signal go out to cell phones throughout the Sofitel hotel in Amsterdam. About half the people in the building then followed instructions and evacuated.

“We want to see what worked and what didn’t,” said David Webb, of FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue Program. “The EU (European Union) is really leading the way with this technology.”
Transmitting mass warnings to mobile phones is more difficult than it might seem.
Cell broadcasting is not the same as sending an SMS, or Short Message Service, which is transmitted to individual phones, said Dutch Interior Ministry spokesman Frank Havik.
An SMS-based system is prone to failure during crises, since networks can jam and messages may not arrive in time. That happened in Thailand during a Pacific Basin-wide tsunami drill in May.
The cell broadcasting system works on a different frequency from regular voice and SMS traffic, avoiding jams. It beams out a single message to all mobile phones that are turned on within a given area.

“CELL BROADCAST TEST. SUSPICIOUS PACKAGE IN HOTEL. IMMEDIATE EVACUATION REQUIRED. GO TO STAIRWELL VIA EMERGENCY EXIT. REPORT IN LOBBY,” said Tuesday’s experimental message.

Havik said he witnessed an emergency in 2000, when a fireworks depot caught fire and exploded in the Dutch town of Enschede, killing 23 people, leveling an entire city block and injuring nearly 1,000.
“The mayor was debating whether we should ring the church bells or send fire engines riding around with their sirens on as a warning signal,” he said. “This is certainly an improvement.”
Abstract from The Chronicle.

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