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Emergency Alert Joins the Twitter Age

In the next two years, federal officials plan to unveil a new means for providing emergency information to the U.S. public.
By Max Cacas, SIGNAL Magazine

Federal officials stage a nationwide test to develop a next-generation approach to informing citizens.

In the next two years, federal officials plan to unveil a new means for providing emergency information to the U.S. public. The new system will be completely digital, and it will offer an opportunity to beam potentially life-saving information to people carrying the latest mobile technology that the existing system is unable to serve.

Before that happens, however, officials from a coalition of federal agencies and private companies that provide a range of communication services held a first-ever nationwide test of the existing Emergency Alert System (EAS), which had only been used to deliver local emergency information.

While the technical capability to deliver national or presidential alerts always has been a part of the EAS, that system capability never has been used. The EAS was not activated, for example, during the 9/11 attacks. In addition, the EAS is unable to deliver alerts in a timely and reliable manner directly to the newest smartphones, which often rely on digital, Internet protocol (IP)-based cellular telephone technology to operate.

The present-day EAS, and its predecessor, the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), date back to 1951 when President Harry S Truman signed legislation creating the Control of Electromagnetic Radiation, or CONELRAD, system. This early system mandated that only designated radio stations licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) were to broadcast in each community in the event of an emergency. CONELRAD later became the EBS and made thousands of radio and television stations available to the president and to state and local leaders.

In 1997, the FCC replaced the EBS with the EAS, which for the first time employed early digital technology to trigger alerts on what was still a network of approximately 20,000 local radio and television stations, plus participating cable television systems. Enabling legislation makes national participation mandatory, while state and local EAS involvement is voluntary.

While the FCC is the lead agency in operating the EAS, other agencies make use of the system to deliver emergency information. The National Weather Service is perhaps the most frequent user of the EAS, employing it to deliver local warnings in the event of extreme weather emergencies. In recent years, state and local law enforcement officials have used the EAS to distribute so-called “Amber Alerts” to inform the public about missing or kidnapped children, and “Silver Alerts” about elderly citizens who may have become lost due to illness or dementia.

To determine the base capabilities of the existing EAS, and to map out the path for an improved system, the FCC, in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a component of the Department of Homeland Security; and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), part of the Department of Commerce and parent agency for the National Weather Service, conducted the first-ever nationwide test of the EAS. The test took place on Wednesday, November 9, 2011, at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST). The goal was a simple one: to determine what worked and what did not when an EAS test was sent out across the country.

One of those supervising the test at one of the many radio stations participating was Dave Garner, the director of engineering for the Washington, D.C., stations of Hubbard Broadcasting. In that role, Garner serves as chief engineer for radio stations WTOP-FM and WFED-AM, which air all-news, and news/talk programming formats, respectively.

Garner notes that both of his stations are two of the 60 officially designated national primary entry point (PEP) nodes for the EAS, in this case, for broadcast stations and cable outlets serving the Washington, D.C., region. This means those stations and cable television systems are required to monitor either of the two stations for their EAS alert tones and messages.

Garner says that at approximately 2:03 p.m. EST, his station’s decoder received the digital tones; and moments later, both WTOP and WFED began transmitting the approximately one-minute-long national test message. But, as with many tests, this one revealed shortcomings as well as opportunities.

“The tones that opened the stations to the message worked fine,” Garner explains. “The problem was the actual recorded test message was highly distorted, and there was some double audio—almost like an 8-second delay of audio on the message.”

Garner continues that his stations transmitted the distorted message along to other stations down the chain. He says the “double audio” initially has been traced to one of the many decoder boxes used at the origination point for the test. He emphasizes that such an outcome, and such a technical problem, were among those expected as part of the test.

“This has been long overdue, in terms of determining if the national part of EAS works,” he says. “I think there were problems, but hopefully all this information is being collected by the FCC.” Garner was one of thousands of broadcast engineers who entered operational information about the test at their stations into special online forms linked to FCC databases for detailed analysis.

Garner also notes that the national EAS test broadcast to his stations was not transmitted to the popular news websites, WTOP.com and FederalNewsRadio.com, which complement the radio programming of WTOP and WFED. That points out a critical need in the new social media era that must be addressed.

Heading up the FCC effort to develop a next-generation EAS is Jamie Barnett Jr., a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral who now serves chief of the commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. In addition to his 32-year naval career, Barnett also served as a partner in a Mississippi law firm representing local municipalities, law enforcement agencies and schools.

Barnett says the FCC hopes to address the online shortcoming through a technology being developed by an EAS federal working group. He calls it the common alerting protocol (CAP).

CAP is designed to be a platform- and technology-agnostic part of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), which is being developed at FEMA. “We want to get alerts to mobile devices, smartphones, whatever technology that is adopted by the consumer, we want to get them an alert,” Barnett explains.

“The idea is to make sure that alerts can go out over multiple technologies, so there is an IP CAP language that can be used, so that as technology develops, it can transmit into that technology smoothly.” Barnett also sees other possibilities for CAP, such as allowing alerts to be transmitted to those who do not speak English and to those with disabilities.

In his initial impressions of the overall emergency alert test, Barnett says he is pleased that the test served its diagnostic purpose. “We wanted to find out if a system that had been devised decades ago—and in its current iteration in the mid-1990s—with the connectivity between FEMA, and the PEP stations, actually worked. We knew we’d get a lot of good data from the test, so I’m very pleased with that aspect of it.”

Barnett explains that a “significant majority” of stations were able to receive the national emergency alert message successfully and retransmit it. And he also considers “the glitches in the system” that were uncovered also to be part of that success. He includes the double audio problem described by Garner and traced to EAS decoding equipment early in the transmission chain.

Such audio problems, he explains, “cascade down, at each level. And each area where they cascade down is another point where there could be a problem; and the higher up in the chain that you have a problem, it means that all the stations and the people downstream may have a problem. Luckily, there weren’t very many of those.”

Broadcasters and other participants in the test were given until December 27 of last year to deliver their input into the national EAS test for analysis by the FCC and FEMA. Barnett says he hopes to have an initial report on the next steps in the development process to commissioners for the new EAS no later than the end of March.

Barnett’s counterpart at FEMA is Damon Penn, assistant administrator for national continuity programs, who is that agency’s overseer for the EAS development program. He describes the importance of the national EAS test to his agency’s work.

“It’s only through comprehensively testing, analyzing and improving these technologies that we can ensure the most effective and reliable emergency alert and warning systems available at a moment’s notice in a time of real national emergency,” he states.

Barnett says the FCC’s goal of the national EAS test, and development work on an improved EAS system, always has been to improve the reliability of emergency communications. “This system is designed to work when no other communications system does,” he explains. Whether the emergency is an electromagnetic pulse, a major nuclear attack or failure of the electrical power grid, he adds, “You have to know that the system is going to work.” He continues that one takeaway from the national test will be a “punch list” of items that have to be addressed to help develop the replacement system.

He notes that CAP and IPAWS will allow the existing EAS system to continue in operation. Barnett notes that the FCC issued rules in 2007 mandating that broadcasters install updated EAS equipment that can receive and transmit CAP and IPAWS formatted alerts by June 30 of this year. That includes cable and satellite television providers with additional technical requirements that Barnett expects will be issued by the FCC later this year.

FCC Emergency Alert System FAQ: www.fcc.gov/guides/emergency-alert-system-eas
FCC Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau: http://transition.fcc.gov/pshs/about-us/office-of-the-bureau-chief.html
FEMA EAS FAQ: www.fema.gov/eastest/faqs.shtm
FEMA: The EAS Test Has Been Tested, What’s Next?: http://blog.fema.gov/2011/11/emergency-alert-system-has-been-tested.html
FEMA: Reviews are Coming In: http://blog.fema.gov/2011/11/reviews-are-coming-in-nationwide-test.html