Government Plans to Turn on Your TV, Radio and Cellphone in Emergency Alert
AFP | August 24 2004
Comment: TV, radio, cellphones blip on at 6am, "This is an emergency alert. Chicago has suffered an attack by means of a suitcase nuclear device. All residents of Chicago must congregate at their nearest sports stadium and be subject to processing into the detention camp. You must relinquish your rights or the terrorists will strike again. Leave your home now and make your way to the sports stadium. Extermination teams have been given orders to shoot dissenters on sight. Anyone still in their home by 5pm will be subject to execution."
On Sept. 11, 2001, the Emergency Alert System in New York City -- the same one that annoys listeners and viewers with test alerts -- didn't go off. Nor did the same system warn Southern California residents in time to escape a deadly wildfire last year.
Not that everyone would have heard the messages in the first place. Even if the president were to declare a national emergency and take over the nation's airwaves for an announcement, cumbersome alert systems and the glut of unmanned radio stations would make it hard to get the word out. Never mind if the warning came in the middle of the night when most Americans aren't paying attention to TV or radio.
In short, many experts conclude, the Emergency Alert System is a mess. And as federal officials begin to launch efforts to expand emergency alerts to cell phones and the internet, critics say they need to spend time and money to preserve the creaky existing system and, perhaps more importantly, put someone in charge nationally.
"Unfortunately, I think it will take a major catastrophe where hundreds of thousands of people are killed for people to understand what (we) have been saying," said Jim Gabbert, who oversees California's Emergency Alert System and serves on a national advisory committee that's been sounding the alarm about alerts for two years.
Despite decades of technological advances in the world of broadcasting, the Emergency Alert System works pretty much the same way it did three decades ago: A government official triggers the alert system, and radio and TV stations -- along with cable companies -- try to get an emergency message on the air.
The protocol is hardly advanced. In many states, the systems rely entirely on designated first-tier radio stations, which broadcast live 24 hours, to interrupt their programs to air digital warning tones with audio messages embedded inside. (That's why on-air tests of the EAS sound like the screams of a computer modem. "It's basically an over-the-air fax machine," said Jeff Williams, program director at two radio stations in Santa Barbara, California.)
Small, so-called second-tier stations, set up with special monitoring devices, hear the tones and broadcast them to even smaller third-tier stations. Along the way, the stations are supposed to pull out the messages and air them.
Not surprisingly, this primitive approach drives some officials bananas.
"A lot of people find fault with that and call it a daisy chain," said Warren Shulz, who oversees the alert system in Illinois. The multiple-station approach requires the top stations to have a person in the studio all the time -- less likely now that many radio stations are automated or run from distant locations -- and can break down if a disaster like an earthquake cripples the stations in the first tier and the backup second tier.
Some broadcasters have complained that authorities use the system too often, especially for weather warnings and "Amber alerts" about faraway missing children. But Williams said the bigger problem is that authorities -- including police, fire and emergency-management departments -- forget that the alert system exists or fail to use it.
"That's when the system fails," he said. "In my opinion, it is as good as your local officials want to make it."
In some cases, authorities seem to have been asleep at the alert switch. No one immediately triggered the alert system to let residents know about evacuations during wildfires in San Diego County last fall; several people died while trying to escape their homes.
The alerts didn't go off during Sept. 11 in New York City or the Washington, D.C., area either. While 9/11 helped trigger the new federal overhaul of the alert system, the failure to use the alert system actually made sense, said Gabbert of California, a retired station owner.
The alerts "are set as a pre-warning system," he said. "They're not for news stories, they're not to tell people to be calm. They're to tell people to do something."
Indeed, the government developed emergency alerts -- initially known as the Conelrad system -- in the 1950s to warn people about nuclear attacks. Seniors and baby boomers may remember old AM radios with a diamond at each end of the dial, denoting frequencies where they could tune in for information during an emergency. All other stations would go off the air to prevent the use of their signals as homing devices for enemy missiles.
The Conelrad program disappeared in the 1960s to make way for the Emergency Broadcast System, which got a new name, EAS, in the 1990s. As in the past, stations can refuse to broadcast alerts in all cases unless they come from the president, in which case they have to air them or sign off. (According to Gabbert, this is to prevent a renegade governor -- think Huey Long -- from taking over a state's airwaves.) Some stations choose not to broadcast Amber alerts or weather alerts if they do not think the information is relevant to their audience.
Now the system is poised for another change. Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it will rebuild the system in consultation with other agencies like the Department of Homeland Security.
According to the trade journal Broadcasting & Cable, the FCC envisions a system that will send warnings to computers, PDAs and cell phones. The FCC is also seeking suggestions for ways to modernize the emergency-broadcast system, potentially including ways to automatically turn on TVs and radios in case of emergencies.
But newfangled devices won't work in some emergencies, said Shulz of Illinois, as Hurricane Charley showed.
"Ask the people down in Florida how their cell phones and internet connections are working," he said. By contrast, many radio stations can operate on generator power for several days.
For that and other reasons, emergency-alert activists are calling on the government not to forget the existing system. But Gabbert said many of their recommendations -- including a plea for more federal oversight -- have been ignored. He and others who run an advisory group called the Partnership for Public Warning, formed after 9/11, haven't had much luck securing federal funding. In June, the group nearly disbanded.
"My biggest concern is that someone on the federal level has to be responsible for the national, state and local alerting system," he said, pointing out that no one is in charge now, and states don't even have to have coordinators in place. "It can't be different groups in different places running into each other like bumper cars."
But federal regulators, he said, "don't want to hear it."