Local broadcasters serve as first responders during an emergency

While the president’s proposed National Broadband Plan is commendable in its premise to provide access to the Internet for all Americans, it falls short when it comes to distributing emergency information during a manmade or natural (extreme weather) disaster.

That’s when the terrestrial broadcast industry’s value to the local emergency communication network — via the industry-mandated Emergency Alert System (EAS), delivered over the airwaves — becomes vitally important. During a disaster, the Internet is not reliable because it relies on electricity, and there’s no electricity unless you have a power generator.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Weather Service jointly managed the EAS service. It covers AM and FM radio, as well as VHF, UHF and cable television including low-power stations. The commission requires all broadcast stations and multichannel video program distributors to install and maintain EAS decoders and encoders at their control points. These decoders continuously monitor the signals from other nearby broadcast stations for EAS messages. For reliability, at least two other source stations must be monitored, one of which must be a designated a “local primary.”

Beyond the lack of power, Web servers are typically not capable of handling hundreds of thousands of simultaneous users. The public switched telephone network was never meant for 100 percent capacity. For example, in a 300-room hotel, there might only be eight outside telephone lines — not a 1:1 ratio.

“If we think about this in terms of emergency communication, what’s noteworthy about radio and television as a medium is that it is independent of the number of users seeking access,” said Bill Robertson, business development manager at Digital Alert Systems (DAS). The company develops technology for distributing EAS messaging. “The FCC continues to talk about reclaiming spectrum, but they’re failing to recognize how important over-the-air broadcasters really are in a time of emergency. The Internet will fail on a number of fronts, so how valuable will a Broadband Plan be during an emergency when the public needs to get information as quickly as possible?”

He added that local cable and satellite TV providers that also offer Internet service are vulnerable to wires being knocked down, headends getting damaged and, of course, the absence of electricity rendering their entire systems unusable for consumers.

Yet, if you have a hand-cranked radio or battery-powered TV, consumers are sure to get the information they need from their local terrestrial stations. They’ll also be able to get uninterrupted emergency information from their cell phone or other portable device if they have a model with an ATSC Mobile DTV or FM tuner and receiver chip attached (or integrated inside).

First of all, Robertson thinks chief engineers should be granted “first responder” status, enabling them to gain access to fuel to run generators and other supplies during a disaster.

“These engineers are critical to the emergency communications network and should be treated as such,” he said. “We need to remember that local stations provide a service that no one else can.”

Next, Robertson and others are advocating stations use a two-pronged approach to emergency situations, whereby the primary EAS information would come from the local broadcast channel and then that would be augmented with a Common Alert Protocol (CAP) alert — basically an XML wrapper that can hold different file types: audio, video and text (PDF) information, This CAP information could be displayed on cell phones and other portable devices as well as on TCP/IP-based digital signage displays throughout an area to keep vital information flowing — in most cases within minutes after power is restored.

CAP information is important because EAS is limited to a few characters across the bottom of a TV screen or audio tones following by a no more than a two-minute spoken warning. For example, during an Amber Alert, the classic EAS warning will only provide a short warning in text but not give a lot of information. With CAP, additional information can be sent out with a better description of the situation. It could also include a photograph of the abducted child, and the message could be available to a host of other devices like roadside signs, cell phones and other displays.

Another shortcoming of the current EAS system is the only way to update a message is to send a second message. If there’s tornado warning announced for two hours, then the storm moves through faster than that, another similar EAS message must be distributed with a shorter duration to act as a rather poor “all clear” message. This adds another step to the process of getting information to the public and creates a distrust of the messages if constantly interrupted.

“We’re very excited about CAP and its ability to offer more information that is timely and of critical importance during the event,” Robertson said. “However, a CAP message needs a back [Internet] channel, and there might not be one available at all times during an emergency. So, we advocate using both methods where possible. That means broadcasters need the spectrum they have today and shouldn’t be asked to give some of their bandwidth back for what in the end is not a vital service [the Broadband Plan].”

DAS, based in Lyndonville, NY, is now working on next-generation systems like the DASDEC-II Emergency Messaging Platform that can be used to provide the public with both EAS and CAP messaging. An Indianapolis, IN-based company called Trilithic also makes EAS complaint systems.

FEMA and the FCC are expected to make an announcement next month, requiring broadcasters to distribute both types of alerts.