Panel Finds Media Emergency Alert System Needs a Big Fix


Lack of coordination among state and local emergency agencies could hamper the use of the media-operated Emergency Alert System following a terrorist attack or environmental disaster, say members of an industry group charged with improving media outlets' ability to warn local communities.

The Media Security and Reliability Council, formed last year at the behest of FCC Chairman Michael Powell, is expected to urge major upgrades to the EAS system as the central recommendation when its first report is issued in May.

The council is chaired by Tribune Co. CEO Dennis FitzSimons and includes News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch and Disney head Michael Eisner. The council was charged with developing "best practices" for broadcast stations and cable systems to follow so that local communities receive up-to-the-minute information about emergencies.

New Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge acknowledged last week the central role that well-prepared media outlets are expected to play in keeping the public informed during a disaster. "The time of emergency is not the time to plan; it's the time to react," he told the National Association of Broadcasters' state leadership conference.

Although general news reports are expected to be the primary source of information, EAS could have a major role because it is automated and can easily repeat detailed instructions. The media council won't make formal recommendations until its May 28 meeting, but an overhaul of the EAS is expected to be a central focus.

"There are enormous holes in the system," said Tribune lobbyist Shaun Sheehan, FitzSimons's day-to-day liaison to the council. "It's an unfunded mandate that also involves the National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and no one has overall authority."

EAS evolved from the old Emergency Broadcast System as a way to ensure that the president could talk to the American people following a nuclear attack. Weather alerts were added in the 1950s and state and local emergencies in 1963.

Each broadcast station must install decoding equipment that automatically adds voice or on-screen text messages received from the National Weather Service, FEMA or state and local agencies.

Under FCC rules, broadcasters and cable systems are required to relay only the president's message to the nation in the event of a national emergency; participation during local emergencies is voluntary.

Because the national system is up and running, however, incorporation of state and local agency alerts would take little extra effort, says Glenn Reitmeier, NBC vice president of technology.

One big problem in the eyes of the industry council: Not all state governments participate in EAS. The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, for instance, refuses to operate EAS encoders even though the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters purchased the equipment. Instead, the state trade group takes responsibility for activating codes during an emergency and running regular tests.

Parochialism is another headache. Louisiana officials have refused to allow surrounding states to activate missing-child AMBER Alerts in Louisiana, and the council wants to make sure no cross-border jealousy hurts upgrades for disasters. Conversely, five states—Connecticut, Delaware, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York and Oregon—have no local emergency-response plans at all.

Sloppy procedures plague other areas, particularly rural ones with few stations. In a statewide test in New York, messages did not make it beyond a 70-mile radius from Albany because encoders were set incorrectly and sometimes station control rooms were not manned.

Some members of the council are frustrated by a perceived lack of support for EAS changes among FCC officials, who would need to jawbone local officials or make rule changes to beef up the service. "We think there's been an awful lot of shirking of responsibility by the FCC" said one participant in the discussions who didn't want to be named, "but they say new regulatory mandates are not what this is all about."

FCC Video Services Chief Barbara Kreisman, who leads the agency's participation in the project denies any resistance to EAS recommendations but insists that it's too early to endorse or oppose specific suggestions. "EAS is one area that makes sense for a national warning system, but we're still in the discussion stage."