News Articles

When the FCC Should Lead

Committed to the First Amendment 8/15/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

The current Emergency Alert System would be a joke if it weren't so
serious.

The FCC must be given the full authority by Congress to overhaul EAS and
turn it into a digital alert system that actually has some relevance to an age
when "duck and cover" doesn't cut it. That means coordinating a system that
includes TV—broadcast, cable and DBS. And radio. And cellphones. And PDAs.
And the Internet. And anything else that can get the word out in an emergency.

The FCC's function, in part, is to play spectrum traffic cop. That
should include public-safety officer. In that role, though, it has been
spending too much time at the donut shop. Thankfully, it appears ready to get
back on the beat.

All of us, this page included, should have been far more appalled by the
failure of the EAS system during 9/11. Actually, the system didn't fail. A
coordinated, nationwide system to warn citizens of danger didn't even exist,
beyond the ad hoc one created by broadcasters and state officials and the even
more ad hoc one created by TV and radio journalists as part of their job
description. The stories of radios as lifelines for New Yorkers on Sept. 11
were many, but it had nothing to do with the Emergency Alert System, which, in
its first real national emergency, issued no alert whatsoever. Almost three
years later, it's no better prepared to do so. When a word from our government
might have helped reassure a nation rocked to its core, what we got was a
frightening silence.

What 9/11 demonstrated was that the EAS system is an anachronism,
designed to coordinate survival and recovery in a nuclear blast. Now that
system is virtually useless.

Today's technology has put a genuinely useful, perhaps life-saving
system within the nation's grasp. Smart technology we write about on page 1
could turn TVs, radios, cellphones and more into a system that can get people
out of harm's way, ideally by letting them know in advance which way harm is
headed.

After 9/11, the FCC discovered that poorly conceived state and local
activation procedures conspired against any kind of coordinated alert during
the Twin Towers and Pentagon attacks. "EAS has fallen into disarray and needs
major reform," admits FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

What we need, says FCC Commissioner Michael Copps in the wake of the
9/11 Commission's report on the "communications unreadiness" of the nation, is
an "aggressive, nationwide plan" and a collaborative approach. (Excerpts of his
remarks are printed below.) Copps was addressing the communications among first
responders, but the same can be said for communicating to the public.

We heartily agree. The system needs an overhaul. The FCC should stop
wasting energy on "indecency" and instead concentrate on putting together a
workable alert system that can do the job that really needs to be done.

March