SACRAMENTO — The public's love affair with cell phones could save lives come anything from natural disasters to restaurant food poisonings under an alert system state officials expect to launch in 12 to 14 months.

With Bay Area officials leading the way, warnings about threats ranging from campus massacres, road calamities, wildfires and quake aftermaths to terrorist attacks, floods and tsunamis will come over cell phones.

Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who sits on the state Emergency Council, told lawmakers at an information-gathering hearing that California is working alongside U.S. agencies that are developing a federal alert system via cell phone but is ready to proceed without them.

"If history is an indicator, the federal government will not act as quickly as we can in California," said Garamendi, who served in the Clinton administration.

He said the urgency of the situation dictates California should "continue to move forward on establishing this system now."

With utility regulators' backing and no legislation required, authorities are planning to use cell phone towers to broadcast tone and text warnings of imminent dangers to all cell phones and Blackberry-type devices in a specific zone. For example, the phone would emit a sound unlike the usual ring followed by a written message appearing on the screen.

"The system also could even be used to alert people after they had been at a site," said Art Botterell of the Contra Costa County sheriff's warning office.


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"If someone was at a restaurant yesterday and now we have a health issue, we could actually send a message just because they were there in the past."

Officials said the alert system would not invade citizens' privacy, since it would be a mass message sent out to all those phones that had been served by a particular communications relay tower near a danger zone, without regard to who owns the phones.

The state's emergency panel has set no exact date for the operation to start as it meets with Public Utilities Commission representatives, state homeland security agents and emergency services officials, as well as cell-phone providers — who would automatically broadcast the warning to customers.

"But I have confidence the cell-phone warning system could be in place in 12 months to 14 months," said Henry Renteria, director of the governor's Office of Emergency Services.

He told lawmakers at the Senate government organization committee meeting that the new cell-alert system would be added to a handful of other public warning tools, including the Emergency Broadcast System, National Weather Service bulletins, and the Amber Alert System.

Emergency notifications must include instructions — usually to avoid an area or to shelter in place, officials said. At the same time, authorities want to avoid mass hysteria.

But Botterell said studies have shown the public is less panicky than believed and usually looks for second verifications of warnings.

There's no "single magic bullet," Botterell said.

The overlapping systems currently in place or under consideration in Contra Costa County — including Reverse 911 —therefore are an important aid, he said.

While boasting that Contra Costa County already has "the most advanced, integrated, comprehensive, all-hazard warning system in the state," he acknowledged that "cell alerting is important" and added that the area has been "actively experimenting with that."

In viewing the state overall, Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, said lawmakers are concerned about communication gaps between first responders and that with the cell-phone alert system, the public might even get word first.

State emergency officials said they are working with local government agencies to address the longtime problems of:

- Better ways for the state command center to communicate with the 58 counties.

- The limited number of ways the state can talk not only with counties but with local agencies within them.

- Continuing to address local public safety agencies' frequent inability to communicate with one another. Problems include departments buying radios from different vendors and topography. Authorities are placing a network of devices throughout the state that allow local responders to talk with one another.

- Broadening the number of facilities, such as universities, that have an alert system.

Sen. Dean Florez, the Fresno-area Democrat who chairs the Senate government organization committee, said campuses "have traditionally been open and accessible."

But, Florez said, "It is critical that we balance this openness with the need to protect our students and staff."

Contact Steve Geissinger at sgeissinger@angnewspapers.com or (916) 447-9302.