Group urges investment in more technology to warn public

Most Americans believe their communities have reliable warning systems that would alert them about emergencies, including terrorist attacks. But the systems do not provide specific information and do not have common messages that everyone can understand, raising concerns that citizens won't know what to do in a disaster, according to a watchdog group that advocates better public warning systems.

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Warning has recommended a series of steps to improve alert systems, including common terminology for natural and man-made hazards. Partnership officials estimated that the improvements could cost the federal government $15 million. Officials at the Homeland Security Department are considering some of the recommendations.

"While current warning systems are saving lives, they are not as effective as they can be or should be," the report states. "A basic concern with current public warning systems is that they do not reach enough of the people at risk and often reach many people not at risk."

The group's recommendations also include making warning systems more effective and targeted to specific areas by tapping into technology such as:

* Mass warning devices, including sirens, horns, electronic billboards and flashing lights.

* Wired warning devices, delivered by computers that would call all phones in a region or send digital signals on phone or power lines.

* Wireless warning devices, which would broadcast warnings on television and radio and send them out to wireless devices such as pagers, handheld computers, phones and watches.

* The Internet, which could send messages via e-mail or pop-up windows on computer screens.

* Telematics systems, devices built into cars and other vehicles to detect accidents and vehicle locations.

"The most effective warning systems will utilize a wide variety of technologies and thereby increase the likelihood of reaching everyone at risk," the report states.

The best warning devices, according to Lonna Thompson, vice president and general counsel for the Association of Public Television Stations, are those that use existing infrastructure or devices that the public already owns. "There's no magic bullet. The key to successful warning is integrating the warning into systems people already use," she said.

Public television is developing a system to embed data in the broadcast spectrum that can be transmitted to computers, handheld devices or laptops that include software that can read alerts. "It's a great opportunity with the digital capacity," Thompson said. "Because it's broadcast, it doesn't overload like the Internet."

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