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McAdams On: EAS and the 7 Ps

TSUNAMI ZONE: A failsafe emergency alert system that reaches every American is a really good idea. Unfortunately, when any organization comprising more than one people has a really good idea, a lot gets lost along the way to fruition. A colleague of mine sort of put it this way: You aim for a three-tiered angel food cake, you end up holding a bag of flour with bite marks in it.

Yet sometimes things work out in spite of marginal planning, which says magnitudes about those executing said idea. Our Emergency Alert System is something like that. Somehow messages get through and lives are saved even though not all participants are held to any sort of standard. While broadcasters must maintain and test EAS equipment on a regular basis or be subject to fines, the agencies that trigger alerts have no particular communications standards.

This was writ large here in Los Angeles in the wee hours of Feb. 28 when the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department issued an AMBER Alert. TV and radio station personnel typically pick up emergency alerts and rebroadcast them as news items rather than EAS break-ins. But this particular one came over at around 5 a.m. and was passed through on a local National Public Radio affiliate. It was full of static, barely audible and much of it was indecipherable. A follow-up investigation revealed that the problem was at the source--“as if the person voicing was simply off mic,” the station engineer said. Broadcasters, it seems, deal with this type of distorted audio on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, a EAS upgrade now underway will allow messages to be shot over a digital network to a central server monitored like a Web crawler. It will allow agencies ranging from the Department of Homeland Security to the local police department to reach all manner of communications service providers. Those ISPs, wireless provider, broadcasters, cable and satellite TV companies, ping the server for alerts. That way, if a 60-foot sea surge is coming toward my home while I’m poking about in, Verizon will, for example, run a text ticker of the evacuation plan.

This is a really good idea, even though Verizon doesn’t have to alert me a tsunami is coming. They’ll likely do it voluntarily to protect their quarterly numbers. I’m a reliably paying subscriber, after all. You don’t want half-a-million of me washed away.

Broadcasters have to accommodate the new system because they are broadcasters. You know all that wireless lobby propaganda about how the broadcasters get their spectrum for free? Tell it to the broadcast engineer who has to go hit up the station manager for a few thousand dollars to buy yet another box. That manager is running a station that just spent millions on a new infrastructure just before the economy collapsed. The board of directors is breathing down her neck. She tells the engineer to figure it out with a string and two cans. This is where the engineer should tell the station manager that not having the box could incur the expense of several of them in the way of FCC fines.

The alerting agencies, however, are under no obligation whatsoever to train personnel how to speak into a mic, much less use the new system. This is in no way meant to criticize the L.A. Sheriff’s Department employee or anyone else who hasn’t spoken directly into a mic. You can’t know if you’re not told. And so it is that the single weakest link in the nation’s expensive new emergency alert network is perhaps one of simple--and easily corrected--human error. In situations where minutes, even seconds, are crucial, it seems worthwhile to address it. There might be technical, somewhat more complicated ways to do so, but it seems like telling folks to speak directly and clearly into a mic is the easiest and most reliable.

And like it or not, that likely will fall to broadcasters rather than the federal agencies mandating the new system. Local TV stations have the closest ties to the local law enforcement and emergency management agencies most likely to use the alert system regularly.

Odds are, I won’t have to run to my car with a bottle of water and my mom’s baby picture to evade a tidal wave. But if one starts building up out there in the Pacific, I sure hope the people in charge of letting me know aren’t furrowing their brows thinking, “what did he just say?”
~ Deborah D. McAdams