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SBE REPORT: Broadcasters Get AMBER Alert Help from New Web Portal

For television broadcasters, the Emergency Alert System (EAS)-and especially AMBER Alert messages-present a number of challenges. The problem is that the EAS "Header Codes" (the data burst portion of the EAS message) do not contain the type of specific information necessary for a station to fully participate in the recovery effort. The specifics are usually contained in the "Voice-Portion" of the EAS message, and that is only transmitted once.

TV broadcasters who participate in broadcasting AMBER Alert information need more than the rather sketchy information in data bursts that will enable them to provide meaningful and helpful information in their crawls. What is needed is a means of distributing this additional information as well as the ability to handle pictures.

The Washington State Emergency Communications Committee (SECC), which I also chair, has been searching for a method to distribute information about AMBER Alerts to stations since it began to develop the Washington state AMBER Alert program in November 2001.

PILOT PROJECT

A pilot project to provide a one-stop AMBER Alert information portal is being developed and could be in operation by September or early October. The AMBER Alert Web Portal will allow broadcasters and the public to access information about AMBER Alerts, including detailed information that cannot be transmitted in the AMBER Alert EAS message, as well as photographs of the victims and their abductors.

Endorsed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the strategic partnership to develop the project was created by the Washington State Dept. of Information Services, the Washington State Patrol, the state's Emergency Management Division, the Washington State Department of Transportation, the Washington State Association of Broadcasters, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs and E2C (Engaging & Empowering Citizenship)/Earth 911.

The AMBER Alert Web Portal is far more than just a Web page where broadcasters and the public can find information about an AMBER Alert. First, it will not replace the EAS-based AMBER Alert activations, but will enhance the current plan by allowing local law enforcement in cities and states to post up-to-date information about an abducted child to a single AMBER Alert Web Portal.

The instant a law enforcement agency posts information about an AMBER Alert to the Web Portal, the Portal will "push" that information out to any person who has subscribed to receive it (there is no cost to subscribe). Law enforcement personnel, broadcasters and citizens will have the option to choose to be notified of alerts and status updates via e-mail, fax, text-enabled cell phone or other Web service notification methods such as paging or personal digital assistant (PDA).

Broadcasters will no longer need to call the law enforcement agency periodically to receive updated information or cancellation notices. That information will be pushed to those who subscribe, notifying them that there is an update, cancellation or other new information. They can then go to the Web Portal site to see the details of the update.

The portal will use a geographic information system to provide map-based search capabilities and convey location-based information to the public. Information on the portal can be displayed in visual, text or audio format, for both local and extended areas.

This information can then be used by participating TV stations for updating their crawls or as the basis for more extensive coverage of the event.

SUCCESSFUL TESTING

The AMBER Alert Web Portal Pilot Project has undergone two highly successful tests.

The initial test of the AMBER Alert Web Portal, which took place May 29, 2003, was an unqualified success. When the Alerts were posted, the Web Portal's software automatically notified pagers that each test participant had been given, as well as text-enabled cellphones of participants that had been programmed into the system. E-mail notifications of the AMBER Alert were received on the computer workstations at each participant's desk. The system worked as expected, and many additional features were suggested to the design team for incorporation into the AMBER Alert Web Portal for the second test.

The second test, on July 7, included more states. In this test, two different AMBER Alert scenarios were developed, and information relating to those two test incidents was relayed as though they were real alerts. Local law enforcement departments in different Washington state counties were presented with a fact situation detailing a child abduction. Each agency then worked with its emergency management agency to send a test EAS message (off-air) that indicated to stations that a test was in progress. Following the EAS message, the various law enforcement agencies posted the information about their respective incidents to the Web Portal. The Web Portal then pushed out notification of the incidents and the information to subscribers via e-mail, pager, text-enabled cellphone and PDAs. This notification prompted subscribers to check the Web Portal to access further information, including the EAS message script and photos of the victim and the alleged abductor. Subscribers were notified of subsequent updates of the information from each local law enforcement agency as the Web Portal pushed that new information or notices of the updates to them.

Further refinement of the AMBER Alert Web Portal is ongoing and plans are being finalized to put the Portal into general use. State agencies and state broadcasters associations from around the country have expressed interest in becoming a participant in the AMBER Alert Web Portal.

As you can see, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work being done to enhance the AMBER Alert program and to provide television broadcasters with the information necessary to hopefully raise the recovery success level even higher. To take advantage of this enhancement, those stations that are manned for the AMBER Portal will require new procedures beyond having their EAS decoder automatically load a small CG (character generator) that can automatically insert the crawl. For those that are unattended, perhaps hardware and software solutions will follow that will enable automatic updates of your AMBER crawl to include the data that is going to be available on the Portal.

The work of the Society of Broadcast Engineers in the area of EAS is never without challenges as well. In the engineering tradition, the AMBER Portal project is indeed a "technical solution" to a problem. I am fortunate to not only chair the SBE EAS Committee, but also the Washington State SECC, and am able to participate, at close range, in finding solutions to these issues with the goal of making EAS better for all. You are welcome to join. If you have a thought or a question, drop me a note at k7cr@wolfenet.com

If you are interested in subscribing for AMBER Alert information when the system becomes operational, go to www.kids911.org, click on the subscription button and fill out the information.