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RBDS hits the target for emergency notification

Tim Means

The gold standard in emergency notification is to get the right message to the right place at the right time. Success requires superior message delivery speed and geographic targeting.

Emergency notification systems that rely on text messages and e-mails often experience message delivery times between 15 and 60 minutes. Also there is no way to “geo-target” notifications using those channels.

As new approaches to emergency notification continue to evolve, one of the most exciting technologies to emerge is the use of a digital sub-carrier on the FM radio band. Known as the Radio Data Broadcast System (RBDS), the sub-carrier signal which was developed in Germany in the 1980’s has been primarily used in the U.S. for pushing out real-time traffic and music information.

For background and a technical description of how RBDS works click on the Wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_Data_System.

While RBDS technology is not new, its use in the U.S as a data path for emergency notification is just beginning. Since 2005, a handful of companies have utilized the RBDS signal in their notification platforms. Interest in this technology is growing and an evaluation of using RBDS for emergency notification, which is being conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), will be completed next month.

Among the emergency notification benefits of RBDS:

  • An RBDS broadcast can reach an unlimited number of receivers in seconds;
  • The FM tower footprint can cover large geographic areas -- up to 50 miles;
  • Receivers can be targeted individually or in groups, allowing for extraordinarily precise geo-targeting;
  • The RBDS infrastructure is already installed across the country and is highly accessible in all major population centers.

Details about the evaluation have not yet been released. However, the program included live tests and demonstrations, data analysis and surveys of alert originators, broadcasters and test participants. Messages were targeted to specific locations as well as specific groups, such as non-English speaking populations and those with hearing and vision impairments.

The tests included three different scenarios conducted in multiple locations across the country, using portable and fixed location receivers. RBDS performance for emergency notification was evaluated against Key Performance Parameters established by Integrated Public Alert and Warning Systems (IPAWS). For more information about IPAWS, click on the link http://www.fema.gov/emergency/ipaws.

According to Mark Lucero, IPAWS program manager at FEMA, “The demonstration showed that FM RBDS is a viable communications technology at the state and local emergency manager level for disseminating emergency information.”

Timothy Means is director of product management for Metis Secure Solutions and an early advocate of RBDS for emergency notification. Means can be reached at:

[email protected]



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