This Is Not a Test
Regulators' bold bid to remake the Emergency Alert System into a digital lifesaver
By Bill McConnell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/15/2004 8:00:00 PM
On a hot summer afternoon, commuters in downtown Baltimore are shocked to see massive plumes of smoke rising near the football stadium a few blocks west. Fire trucks and ambulances race to the scene, and panic starts to spread.
Suddenly, at precisely the same moment, every mobile phone in the area rings.
Displayed on handset screens, TVs, Blackberries and Palms is a stern text announcement: A train has derailed near downtown. Chemicals from tanker cars have spilled and caught fire. Mayor Martin O'Malley has ordered evacuation of downtown. I-395 and all roads adjacent to the stadium complex are closed to inbound traffic.
Emergency planners envision such instant alerts transmitted via a sophisticated new Emergency Alert System (EAS) that could beam warnings about local crises from local TV and radio stations to TVs, radios, personal computers and an array of digital devices. An always on, wireless alert system would leapfrog the current architecture, a relic of the Cold War that nearly every communications expert derides as hopelessly outdated.
EAS has "fallen into disarray and needs major reform," proclaimed FCC Chairman Michael Powell as he unveiled agency plans to revamp the system.
The overhaul comes as TV stations and, eventually, radio stations convert to all-digital broadcasts capable of delivering multiple channels packed with unprecedented amounts of information.
Two weeks ago, the FCC began soliciting suggestions from TV companies, cellphone makers and public-safety officials on how new digital-TV technology can improve the system. By 2007, the FCC hopes to require local TV and radio outlets to carry local alerts. Other required elements, such as delivering alerts to cellphones and PDAs, could follow.
One ingenious new feature the FCC is already seeking: DTV alerts that could turn TVs and radios on automatically so residents could receive warnings even when the device is turned off.
Such ubiquitous reach reflects a dramatic evolution from the quaint system created in the 1950s. Most Americans still remember the weekly 30-second tests of the Emergency Broadcast System, etched into their memories by its ear-piercing whistle and stern voiceover, "This is only a test." Today's EAS features a less-jarring, monthly test with a tone lasting only eight seconds. TV stations no longer must display the EBS logo during tests and can continue regular programming while a notice for the test crawls across the screen.
Today, only about 1,000 local alerts a year are transmitted over the system; nearly 80% are generated by the National Weather Service, primarily in the "Tornado Alley" of the Midwest and the hurricane-prone states of the Gulf Coast.
Despite repeated upgrades since the 1950s, the improvements have never addressed the system's most glaring flaw: its lost potential. Despite its ability to alert citizens in a variety of emergency scenarios, broadcasters have been required to install and test equipment for a single purpose: to relay a nationwide message from the president to the American people in the event of a full-scale nuclear attack, a threat that seems almost quaint in today's post-Cold War world. Cable systems were ordered to add alerts to all their channels in 1997, and DBS companies are likely to be included in the current overhaul. Ironically, the single mandatory component of the EAS's charter has never been triggered.
Only about half the nation's 14,000 broadcasters carry local emergency alerts, but they do it voluntarily. Those that decline to participate do so for a variety of reasons: cost, poor coordination with state emergency officials, and fear of annoying viewers with frequent warnings of thunderstorms.
Nearly all stations are equipped to relay local alerts because equipment necessary to relay presidential alerts also recognizes the codes used for local tornado, fire or missing-child alerts. Those that must upgrade would need to spend only $300-$5,000. "Cost is not a factor in stations' willingness to participate," says Clay Freinwald, corporate engineer for Entercom Communications and EAS committee chairman for the Society of Broadcast Engineers.
Regulators say the goal now is to design the most efficient transmission of warnings about storms, toxic threats, medical facilities and evacuation routes during local emergencies. The idea is to take advantage of new capabilities offered by the switch to digital TV and the proliferation of other digital communications in the past decade. If special EAS chips were added to radios, TVs, cellphones and other wireless devices, citizens could access alerts away from their homes or could be awakened by broadcast warnings.
The system's wasted potential was magnified during the 9/11 attacks, the closest the U.S. has come to a national attack since Pearl Harbor. Sadly, EAS was not activated, in part because most New York TV stations' antennas were located atop the World Trade Center but also because city emergency managers failed to issue an alert. If the system could lie dormant during such a nationwide trauma, many question whether EAS serves any purpose today.
The flaws are exposed in local tragedies, too. Last summer, 12 people died in a San Diego County wildfire during the early-morning hours. Even though sheriff's deputies began evacuating residents at 11 p.m. the night before, none thought to activate EAS for another four hours, too late to catch more than a handful of TV viewers.
A grand jury investigating the debacle blamed the EAS failure on poor communication between fire fighters and the San Diego County Emergency Services Office, the agency responsible for requesting emergency alerts from broadcasters. Even though wildfires are a frequent occurrence in southern California, local officials had never activated broadcast alerts for a fire.
In the wake of the 2001 attacks, the FCC organized an industry advisory group to explore an EAS overhaul. The patchwork of state and municipal activation procedures makes the system vulnerable to glitches, the FCC found.
Today's EAS evolved from the Control of Electromagnetic Radiation, created in 1949 by President Truman so he could address the American people following a nuclear attack. (Aside from any physical damage caused by a nuclear blast, a radio or TV station would suffer only temporary loss of its signal.)
The agency was renamed the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) in the 1950s, and President Eisenhower allowed broadcasters to add National Weather Service alerts if they chose. In 1963, President Kennedy added state and local emergency information to broadcasters' options. EBS was converted to an automated system in 1997 and renamed the Emergency Alert System.
Here's how the system works today: During a dire national emergency, the president records a message to Americans. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) transmits the message via telephone lines to 34 pre-chosen radio stations covering 90% of the country, typically AM news stations far enough away from likely nuclear targets. For instance, FEMA designated WBAL(AM) Baltimore a primary station but selected none in Washington, where an attack is likely.
All other TV and radio stations must monitor those 34 primary stations or state emergency operating centers. The FEMA signal with the president's message theoretically overrides regular programming. Alerts generated by the National Weather Service as well as state and local emergency agencies piggyback on this system.
For now, the National Association of Broadcasters is promising cooperation in meeting the FCC's goals. "We look forward to reviewing FCC proposals and working with local and state public-safety officials," a spokesman says. But individual stations not currently participating are mixed on what new requirements would mean.
The wide disparity in the effectiveness of local systems is due partly to the fact that state governments are in charge of local alerts. "In some areas, the local-alert systems are highly developed," says Freinwald. "In others, they are dysfunctional."
For instance, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency refuses to operate EAS; the state broadcasters association must run the system on its own. A new federal system could resolve such inconsistencies.
Some station managers fear constant interruptions unless required warnings are kept to a minimum. Frequent severe-thunderstorm warnings for towns on the periphery of weather patterns, for example, are a regular summer annoyance.
Still, in an age when terrorist threats loom over the entire country, such minor quibbles may seem unimportant. Says Powell, "A lot has changed since 1951."
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