A new emergency alert system that will send text messages to cell phones to warn people of disaster was unveiled in New York City earlier this week.

Known as the Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN), this public safety system is expected to be available in New York and Washington D.C. by the end of this year. The ultimate goal is to have the system across the U.S.

The service will allow customers who own an enabled mobile device to receive geographically-targeted, text-like messages alerting them of imminent threats to safety in their area. Think a terrorist attack or a tornado.

NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Julius Genachowski and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator Craig Fugate announced the new service Tuesday overlooking the World Trade Center site.

People will receive three types of alerts from PLAN — alerts issued by the President, alerts involving imminent threats to safety of life and Amber Alerts notifying of missing or abducted children – but can opt to receive only Presidential alerts.

While emergency text message systems are not a new idea, here’s what sets this PLAN apart, according to the FEMA blog:

• First, these alerts will be geographically targeted, so people will receive them based on where they are when an emergency hits, as opposed to where they live. This is a much more practical and useful way of getting emergency information, when it matters most.

• Second, these alerts will be able to get through to phones, no matter how jammed nearby cell towers are.

• And third, they are completely free of charge and require no sign up. Wireless carriers voluntary choose to participate, and in doing so, provide the technology to new and existing customers. Customers whose phones include the new PLAN technology will have the alerts already activated on their phones, but can opt out of receiving them if they choose to do so.

Check out Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) info on preparing an effective evacuation plan.