ALBANY, N.Y. State emergency administrators here are testing code written to interact with video gaming systems. They’re exploring the state’s ability to send alerts via online gaming networks.
New York authorities envision a time when important weather alerts and other information can penetrate the awareness of even the most diehard gamers, who otherwise might be ignorant of what’s happening in the world outside their family rooms or basements.
Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft and others operate online networks that allow players to compete with others around the world. State emergency planners, in concert with gaming console vendors, began conducting the tests late last year, officials said.
This effort, believed to be the first of its kind, also will go a long way toward determining if Xbox and PlayStation gamers will sign on for emergency warnings that could disrupt their games, warning experts say.
Observers in the public warning community say this development, along with other recent moves by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is further proof that public alerting no longer rides mostly on the backs of broadcasters.
FEMA — which in December adopted standards for the Commercial Mobile Alert System that will soon bring public warning to personal cell phones — is exploring other options that could be integrated into a new digital Emergency Alert System. Observers have told Radio World that FEMA is watching alert developments in individual states closely.
“We worked the last two quarters of 2009 with three vendors — Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo — to develop this. Our intent is to utilize any communications device available to deliver emergency information,” said Dennis Michalski, assistant director for community affairs with the New York State Emergency Management Office.
Video game alerts would include an opt-in function. “We will not intrude on any subscriber’s privacy by sending a message to their respective device without their permission,” Michalski said.
A soft launch is later this year if testing and programming prove successful.
Video game alerts would be integrated into NY-Alert, a project using 17 communications gateways that Michalski described as innovative and robust.
For example, NY-Alert uses Real Simple Syndication, or RSS, to distribute alerts online and via e-mail. State residents also can receive alerts via the Twitter social networking and micro-blogging service. More than 5.1 million people subscribe to NY-Alert.
Many within the EAS community believe cell phones eventually will become the ultimate EAS notification tool. But, Michalski said, “We are being very aggressive in our efforts to roll out a variety of platforms for emergency notifications. These additional gateways to notification will provide warnings to many more people.”
Supporters of the video game plan believe it is cutting-edge and would allow state and local emergency managers to reach a younger demographic that spends more time on Wii devices than with radio and television.
New York’s deputy chief information officer says the idea makes sense “considering the amount of time our youth spend on video games.”
However, the New York plans don’t tweak everyone’s joystick. Some wonder if gamers will want to sign up for the possible interruption the alerts would cause to their gaming. Several public warning experts believe the video game platform could work if certain issues are settled.
“My biggest concern would be to make sure the EAS information gets to the correct gaming participant and that it doesn’t interfere with the game. That would discourage participants and cause them to opt out of the program,” said Adrienne Abbott, chair of the State Emergency Communications Committee for Nevada and a field engineer for the Nevada Broadcasters Association.
Alerts would have to be delivered in “real time,” Abbott said.
Art Botterell, manager of a community warning system for the Sheriff’s Department of Contra Costa County in California and a prominent voice in the national EAS community, said, “I think it is a great idea. We never know all the ramifications or fine points of innovation until we try it. New warning options are emerging all the time.”
However, Botterell said, adding options means more responsibility for emergency managers to use them effectively.
“That means sending out consistent and well-formed warning messages over all media, traditional ones and new ones, too.”
Some broadcast engineers in New York state said they are taking the proposal seriously and believe the more pathways used to emergency warning, the better.
“It’s about time,” said Tom Ray, vice president/corporate director of engineering for Buckley Radio, who also contributes to Radio World.
“For far too long there have been many other methods occupying people’s time beside radio and television — cell phones, e-mail, text messages, satellite television and online gaming.”
Ray said his 20-year-old son often plays his Xbox with people from all over the world — which means when engaged, he is not watching TV or listening to the radio. “It’s time emergency messaging comes to things like online gaming.”
Another New York broadcast engineer, who asked not to be named, thinks far more public warning innovations are coming.
“Couldn’t a pop-up appear on my computer screen forced by every ISP in the nation directed by the Zip code of the billing address? Or use reverse 911 to call every cell phone in the vicinity of specific cell phone towers. Or how about using Sync or On-Star, which could suppress car audio to present a message?” he said.
Not all observers are buying into the gee whiz factor of alerting via online gaming networks, at least as now envisioned.
George Marshall, chief engineer for WHTZ(FM) in New York City, said, “Although we think the more ways you can get emergency information out the better, having an opt-in requirement defeats the purpose. Honestly, how many people are going to go through the menus and say ‘This is a good idea?’ Not many, I’m afraid.”
Another broadcast engineer in the state, who also asked not to be identified, believes most gamers will simply not opt-in to the system.
“I think video game manufacturers and the gaming networks would take a lot of heat. Far more people will find out (emergency information) through Facebook or text messages long before any EAS interruption of some video game system.”
Warren Shulz, chair of the State Emergency Communications Committee for Illinois and chief engineer for Citadel in Chicago, said, “I think it is a waste of time to deal with gamers. Just push the alerts out as a text message to cell phones. Trust me, every gamer is wearing a cell phone.”
Some observers within the EAS community believe many more public warning gateways are coming and keeping diverse systems compatible will be a challenge.
California’s Botterell said the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, IPAWS, being developed by FEMA using the Common Alert Protocol will be “what pulls all the threads [of public warning] together and into a consistent fabric of public warning 2010 and beyond.”