FEMA to expand Emergency Alert System

The government has committed $5 million to deploy a new system on 356 public television stations by the end of 2007.
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The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has announced a plan to expand the nation's emergency alert system. In addition to television and radio communication, the new system will include communication via cell phones, handheld devices and Internet Web sites.

The government has committed $5 million to the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS) to deploy a new system on 356 public television stations by the end of 2007.

The new system, called the “Digital Emergency Alert System”, is designed to send audio, video, text and graphics to selected targets such as emergency personnel. The messages, officials said, should also be more reliable because they can be sent directly to their intended recipients rather than relayed through a chain of broadcast stations.

The current emergency broadcast system, created in 1951 during the Truman administration, was designed to warn of cold war catastrophes such as nuclear attacks through TV and radio broadcasts. It is limited to sending mass broadcasts of verbal messages to selected regions of the country.

Its failure during 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita generated pressure on the federal government to improve alerting technology. In this election year, initiatives were not simply left to FEMA. Hearings were held on emergency alerts in the U.S. House of Representatives.

A hearing focused on the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act, which was formally proposed by Reps. John Shimkus (R-IL) and Albert Wynn (D-MD). The legislation calls for the government and the private sector to devise a “voluntary” national alert system capable of transmitting messages “across the greatest possible variety of communications technologies,” including wireless devices and the Internet.

The WARN Act would not explicitly require the messages to be sent to devices such as cell phones and e-mail accounts, because “voluntary, incentive market-based competitive products (do) a better job of encouraging full deployment,” Shimkus told CNET News.

The FCC itself is still contemplating whether the current structure of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) remains the best way to get the word out and is reviewing public comments on whether to deploy a new type of system, such as a satellite or Internet-based mechanism.

Last November, the FCC issued rules requiring that digital television, cable and audio broadcasters and satellite radio operators also deliver the alerts, beginning Dec. 31, 2006. Satellite television providers must meet that requirement by May 31, 2007.

Some, CNET reported, have criticized the planned upgrade of the alert network as yet another expensive government undertaking that doesn't have the same necessity in an era of readily available news.

Particularly in rural areas, “most (broadcasters) just went on the air full-time, and that in many cases was more productive than a sometimes garbled EAS message traveling in a chain from station to station,” Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) told the hearing.