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Emergency Alert System?

One wonders if there is anything at all in Washington that isn't broken. Dysfunctional government has dropped the American public's approval rating of Congress to the historical low point of just 9 percent. With the massive failure of the recent nationwide Emergency Alert Systen (EAS) test, it would appear that FEMA, which demonstrated an epic level of dysfunction during and after Hurricane Katrina, is leaving no stone unturned on its relentless path toward displacing Congress as the least-admired body of government.

The test showed colossal gaps of functionality and architecture of a system found to be woefully lacking in capability. If not for the seriousness of purpose, test results would be comical. Take the cable system that missed the test time completely. When it finally activated the alert, viewers were taken to a home shopping network before the alert finally showed. (It was something, perhaps, to entice last-minute, doomsday shoppers?) Satellite did equally as well, as some DIRECTV viewers listened to the Lady Gaga song “Paparazzi” instead of emergency information.

From the beginning, broadcasters have always played the pre-eminent role in various implementations of a system designed to reach the public during a time of national emergency. But, it has been many years since the first CONELRAD (CONtrol of Electronic RADiation) system was introduced in 1951 under President Harry Truman, and communications technology has moved light-years forward in capability since that time.

With television in its infancy, the prime focus was on radio as the system's backbone. Under CONELRAD, all television and FM broadcasts were to be shut down. AM radio broadcasters would also cease normal broadcasting, but designated primary stations would switch operating to 640KHz or 1240KHz, the designated Civil Defense CONELRAD frequencies.

During an alert, transmissions on the CD frequencies were intermittent, and broadcasts rotated through a series of different stations. The theory behind the original system was that by constantly shifting transmitter sites, Soviet bombers' radio direction-finding equipment would be thwarted from homing in on American cities. This sounds a bit incredulous today, but this was just a decade after Japanese bombers used a Honolulu radio station to home in its attack at Oahu.

In 1963, CONELRAD was replaced by the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS). With progress in both technology and strategic thinking, EBS embraced television broadcasting as well as radio. Stations transmitted on their assigned frequencies instead of 640 and 1240, and TV stations carried the same audio as radio broadcasters. Never used for a national emergency, the system was used many times at the local level, particularly for severe weather alerts.

At the start of 1997, the EBS was supplanted by the EAS. The system's stated goal since has been to allow the President to speak to the populace within 10 minutes after activation. As the most recent test exposed, there is a long way to go to reach that objective. But, as technology has continued to quickly evolve, EAS now must rely not only on broadcasters but cable, fiber distribution, satellite TV and satellite radio companies — all of which, collectively, must get it right for an effective, integrated system.

Broadcasters can only control their own transmissions. Once they are picked up by a cable, fiber or satellite provider for distribution, all bets are off. Now, the responsibility lies with the provider, and the broadcaster is out of that loop. This reliance, as the recent EAS test illustrated, is poorly placed. Ironically, FEMA leans heavily on the broadcast leg of the EAS tent. Meanwhile, simultaneously, it joins with wireless companies and others looking to usurp broadcasters' spectrum.

It is time to let broadcasters off the hook for participation in a system that would have made Rube Goldberg proud. The current United States population is 300 million. The CTIA, the international association of the wireless industry, reports 285 million Americans now have cell phone accounts. The number of active cell phones owned outnumbers the total population. When EAS was adopted in 1997, cell phone penetration stood at 14 percent. Today, it is virtually 100 percent. The bottom line: If the system wants to immediately reach the most people in a time of emergency, it should use the wireless network. With a cell phone in virtually every American's hands, FEMA needs to rethink how to carry out its EAS mandate and leave Lady Gaga to iTunes.

Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.

Send questions and comments to: anthony.gargano@penton.com