Safety personnel scrutinize weak links in safety chain
Can broadcasters do a better job of warning and alerting the American public to various threats? Can we do it faster and more effectively?
These are two questions the emergency management and public safety communities are grappling with, and the existing Emergency Alert System (EAS) is right in the center of this debate. A number of states are now giving EAS a second look.
"For what it was designed to do, it works fine. However, with the situation a year ago, we are now looking at how to get communications and critical information out faster to all levels of society, " says Tristan Richards, the Bangor-based director of operations at the Maine Public Broadcasting Network (MPBN) and chair of the Maine State Emergency Communications Committee.
"EAS should become mandatory instead of voluntary as it is today. Beyond that, my most immediate concern involves our need to address the way in which the alerts flow station to station in the current daisy-chain or bucket-brigade configuration," Richards says.
Three federal agencies - the FCC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Weather Service (NWS) - act in concert to coordinate the EAS. A quick scan of the FCC Web site indicates that perhaps one-third of the states have actually filed their EAS plans with the FCC to date. For a more in-depth look at EAS, which was first activated in 1997, visit the FCC EAS web site at www.fcc.gov/eb/eas.
COLD WAR TECHNOLOGY
"EAS works quite well at the local level, but all it takes is for one station to drop the ball or to elect not to run the message, and that has a very adverse impact immediately on the all the other stations downstream," says Fred Vincent, director of operations at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management in Richmond.
Like Richards, Vincent is also concerned about the speed at which the system reacts to a national crisis.
"EAS today is based on Cold War technology," says Vincent. "It takes time to do the relay. Is that span of time too long? That depends entirely upon the event in question. What is needed is quicker messaging or a much faster - almost in real time - response time."
Roland Lussier, president of Communications Laboratories Inc. (Comlabs) in Owls Head, Maine, is one vendor of emergency management networking solutions who is attempting to address some of the system's deficiencies or shortcomings by integrating full EAS capabilities into a satellite-based system the company calls EMnet. Several states are already using the system, which uses a mix of redundant warning delivery systems with a Ku-band satellite as the primary transmission source for a multipoint warning signal.
"Our warning systems are inadequate. They will not perform as advertised," says Lussier, who demonstrated the EAS capabilities of EMnet at MPBN in early September. "The EMnet system is designed to take advantage of the broad footprint that a satellite offers with an instantaneous direct link to each receive site. All the receivers will get each message, and yet the system ensures that only a designated group of addressees will process the message in question."
If the satellite link fails due to rain fade or some other problem, the EMnet system automatically reverts to any TCP/IP link, ensuring that the message gets delivered.
With the rapid migration of the broadcast industry to automated or unattended facilities, the level of EAS activation in many states is being questioned, along with the security of the system.
"There is too much room for error with EAS today," says Lussier.
"There are people out there who are intimating that EAS will not work. As a blanket statement, [that 's] not true. In fact, the potential and reliability built into EAS has not been realized yet," says Richard A. Rudman, a Los Angeles-based advanced warning systems consultant and trustee for the Partnership for Public Warning (PPW), which aims to develop and define warning terminology, create warning message content standards and create a common warning protocol, among other things. Rudman is also a member of the SBE EAS Committee and the SBE FCC Liaison Committee.
"Our job as engineers was to build the pipeline," says Rudman. "Local government is responsible for creating the product that flows in it. Such things as how evacuation notices are worded or how details are addressed with respect to life safety messaging are not a broadcaster issue. More and more local emergency management agencies are just now acknowledging that the capability to move information quickly out to the public is a valuable resource to be managed like sandbags and firetrucks."
ALERT TO WEAKNESSES
Rudman disputes the notion that EAS is driven only by a daisy-chain message distribution.
"EAS was designed to break the old EBS daisy chain," Rudman says.
At the same time, he credits the rapid adoption of the AMBER Alert system nationwide for revealing some of the weak links in EAS, such as how fast the systems responds, how fast the message circulates and the degree of coverage or saturation of the general public that ultimately takes place.
"AMBER Alerts are helping EAS. What makes AMBER better will make EAS better, and what is done to make EAS better will improve AMBER Alerts," Rudman says.
"We have to pull all the stakeholders together so we can agree on realistic goals for warning systems now and in the future. We have to foster a predictable business environment so cost-effective and reliable consumer warning systems will come to market to close the loop," he says.
"EAS as a fundamental technology is fairly sound," says Kelly Williams, senior director of engineering and technology policy at the NAB. "The problem lies with the implementation. There is flexibility, and it is up to the local emergency management agency working together with local broadcasters to decide how to use it, and what the broadcasters' role is going to be.
"The problems with things such as message expiration have been revealed and the FCC has dealt with this problem, which affected stations far down the chain in particular by increasing the validity time for messages," adds Williams. "As for the delays caused by the daisy-chain or bucket-brigade configuration, the FCC is attempting to minimize or eliminate that as well."
Money is an issue. Broadcasters who just spent thousands of dollars on EAS encoders and other hardware are probably not too enthusiastic about any discussion of the need for upgrades to EAS or replacements. Through industry-wide efforts such as the PPW, new solutions or approaches may emerge.
Whatever happens to EAS as the best way to reach the public in an emergency is one thing. At the same time, emergency managers require a lot more training in such things as how to select the right words for a warning, and the public needs to be better educated too about what they need to do when they receive warnings and alerts. Rudman indicates that the PPW is keenly aware that all these matters need to be addressed on a priority basis.
And one of the biggest question marks hanging over the EAS involves the approximately 19 million households equipped with DBS satellite dishes today. This enormous block of TV households nationwide is simply an unknown quantity as far as EAS is concerned. Where are these DBS households on the EAS chart? Unlike cable households, are these DBS households even on the EAS chart today? At this point, they do not appear to be.
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