U.S. alert system needs makeover
There's an old joke about how to tell if someone is from the Midwest. Wait for a tornado warning and see who goes outside.
Tornado warnings are among the most common use of the nation's Emergency Alert System (EAS), now the subject of a major overhaul by the FCC. In a 28-page Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the commission questions whether the system is worth saving, and if so, how to save it.
Conceived in the 1950s, the original system was created to warn the nation in the event of a nuclear attack.
"It used to be for 'duck-and-cover,'" said Richard Rudman, an EAS expert who serves on the FCC's Media Security and Reliability Council. "Modern risks aren't that simple."
The current system is designed to work on multiple levels, from local tornado warnings, child abductions, wildfire alerts and hazardous chemical spills, to a nationwide alert initiated by the president. With EAS, however, design is a far cry from execution.
THE BIG ONE
In theory, a national alert would be relayed from the White House to the Federal Emergency Management System, then to 34 radio stations designated as Primary Entry Points (PEP). Meanwhile 550 Local Primary broadcast stations monitor their regional PEPs; while the 550 are monitored by 24,000 local broadcast and cable systems.
No president has initiated a national alert, so the efficacy of the system is unknown. Nor has the system been officially tested, but it was "accidentally" activated once in the Chicago area, according to Rudman. It worked, but for "gaps and holes," he said.
In some cases over the years, broadcasters have simply failed to install or maintain EAS equipment. The FCC levied about 80 fines in 2003 for such violations, and is contemplating raising the maximum fine from $32,500 to $325,000.
However, the FCC itself acknowledged that this type of noncompliance could be more a personnel and training issue than one of willful neglect. Of the 24,000 communications entities responsible for distributing EAS warnings, the majority are considered small businesses as defined by the Small Business Administration.
Even if every single one of the 24,000 were EAS-compliant, a power outage or signal interference could render huge parts of the distribution system inoperative. And aside from whether or not EAS is able to function properly, there are those who doubt its usefulness in a time when ENG cameras are everywhere.
"We are surrounded in live news," said Henry Ruhwiedel, chief engineer at WYIN in Gary-Merrillville, Ind. "Annoying EAS tests are just false security that a message could be relayed from station to station, to arrive long after the far-end station has most likely already carried the news live from the source."
While Ruhwiedel is ready to relegate EAS "to the same status as smoke signals and jungle drums," active emergency managers are not so willing to trash the system, particularly for local alerts.
"It's not failing all across America," said Joann Donnellan, communications manager for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Donnellan was integral in petitioning the FCC to create an EAS code for Amber Alerts--broadcast notifications of child abductions. "We've saved 150 kids."
EAS was also recently activated in Florida during back-to-back hurricanes. While most people got storm details from local broadcast meteorologists, evacuation notices came via EAS, according to Jack Wilson, a resident of Tampa, Fla.
"I thought the Emergency Alert System worked pretty well," Wilson said. "The first evacuation notices went out around noon on Thursday, effective at 6 p.m. We don't live in an evacuation zone, but that certainly got my attention."
Then there were people like Sarasota resident Robert Gerhart, whose relationship to media makes him nearly EAS-proof.
"What television I do watch is usually from my TiVo, and I surf radio stations the minute the news comes on," he said. "The EAS did me little good."
It's for folks like Gerhart that the FCC would like to spread the EAS burden to other communications industries, like wireless providers. The wireless industry had yet to officially respond to that part of the FCC's proposal at press time, but Jeffrey Nelson, spokesman for the Verizon Wireless group, said the concept is tricky technically.
"Wireless is not designed as a multipoint distribution channel, and that informs the technology and the position on public policy," Nelson said.
Wireless providers are currently working on phasing in 911 service according to an FCC directive, Nelson said, but only 1,200 of the nation's 6,500 designated 911 call centers have the technology that works with 911-enabled cell phones. That's because there is no regulatory requirement for the call centers to have the equipment.
THE LOCAL LOOPHOLE
EAS is in a similar predicament. Broadcasters are required by law to maintain EAS equipment, but the law enforcement and civil agencies that authorize local alerts are not. Consequently, a majority of Amber Alerts are still conveyed by law enforcement agencies via fax or phone. In some civil emergencies, EAS has been overlooked.
"We had a very good example of it occur last November during the fires," said Oscar Medina, chairman of EAS in San Diego.
California has a state Office of Emergency Preparedness that's in charge of activating EAS warnings for wildfires. Apparently, firefighters were too busy fighting fires to notify OEP. A grand jury investigated the failure to activate EAS and found no fault because news outlets were all over the fire by the time a warning would have reached people.
Bob Gonsett would disagree with anyone who would use the San Diego wildfires to argue that broadcast news is an adequate replacement for EAS. Gonsett, president of Communications General Corp., and editor of an RF-related e-mail newsletter, lives in the northern San Diego County community of Fallbrook, where several smaller fires that threatened that community received no TV coverage at all.
"The problem is even more generic than talking about EAS," Gonsett said. "We're talking about getting receivers in people's homes that are on all the time, that are squelched unless there is something that pertains to them."
The FCC is indeed considering the use of self-activating devices, similar to those used in Germany, where the government has the power to switch on radios. The closest device in the U.S. market short of a police scanner is RCA's line of Alert Guard TV sets that kick on in the event of an EAS warning.
CAPT. MIDNIGHT RIDES
Should all the holes in EAS distribution somehow be plugged, there is still the issue of security. Encoders are equipped with password functionality, but as the FCC notes in its NPRM, "there is no way of knowing which stations use password security." As such, anyone with an encoder and enough smarts can fake an EAS alert.
Art Botterell, an expert in communications and disaster management, said EAS security is a pressing issue.
"The system, in most of its incarnations, is pretty easy to hack," he said. "The problem is, there is no real consistency in how state and local jurisdictions access the system. They're free to whip up their own solutions."
Botterell is the chief architect and proponent of Common Alerting Protocol, or CAP, a sort of HTML that would work for EAS over a variety of communications systems.
"As an emergency manager, you may have a choice of several warning conduits, but they all have different procedures," he said. "CAP would make all procedures consistent."
CAP would also enable emergency communications with the blind, the hearing-impaired and with non-English speaking populations--something the current system lacks.
DIALING FOR DOLLARS
Ultimately, money, and possibly legislation, will be necessary to overhaul the nation's emergency alert system into a smooth, cohesive operation, Rudman said.
"I'd like to see a piece of legislation out of Congress called the National Warning Responsibility Act that sets up the mandate and the funding, pulls together an overall needs assessment and issues an annual report on the state of warnings in the country," Rudman said.
Last year, Sen. John Edwards, (D-N.C.), proposed allocating $50 million over five years to EAS improvements, but the funding died before the final budget was approved, and Edwards has since become preoccupied as a vice-presidential candidate.