Remarkably, even Hurricane Katrina was not enough to trigger the national emergency alert system (EAS). It lay dormant even as the storm surge wiped out whole towns along the Gulf Coast, levees were breeched and much of New Orleans was reduced to flotsam.
In those desperate times, the only alert system consisted of radio and TV stations that, heroically and come hell and high water, continued to broadcast life-saving information.
In fact, according to the FCC's Homeland Security point person, the federal government has not used the national EAS since it was revamped in the mid 1990s—not even during 9/11.
Clearly, there is something wrong here.
First, the government obviously ought to have used EAS. But second, it must use the tragedy of Katrina as a spur to employ the vastly improved technologies that have developed over all those years of EAS inactivity.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has been stumping for that new system on Capitol Hill (see interview, page 4). He is preaching to the choir here.
The keys are to incorporate satellites, cellphones and the Internet into what has been a broadcast-only system. That apparently will take a boatload of money: $15 billion by some accounts, more by others.
Among the things that need to change post-Katrina is one simple fix for “old” media that were able to stay on the air: Fuel for broadcast back-up generators should get priority status from Federal Emergency Management Agency. The FCC had to pull some strings to help WWL New Orleans get fuel to keep going. Satellites must become part of the equation. And digital media should have the same alert requirements as analog.
The government also could do better by using what it has. There is unused first-responder spectrum in New Orleans right now, we're told. Broadcasters on the FCC's Media Security and Reliability Council are brainstorming best practices. What's more, some noncommercial stations in New York are working on a system using spectrum already available, a system that could be duplicated nationwide (see Airtime below).
There were loud cries last week for moving up the date when broadcasters must return analog spectrum so some of that spectrum could be assigned to first-responders.
But the task of coming up with an interoperable system will take years. Broadcasters have agreed to the 2009 date and should hold to it. There will be time in the interim to devise the new system, and money from the 2009 auction will help pay for some of it.
What really needs to happen is for this nation to devise a better emergency communications system and then, for a change, actually use it.