FCC: Alert system so last century

Federal Communications Commission's Emergency Alert System site

Federal Communications Commission officials said they intend to correct deficiencies in the nation's emergency warning capability, with the support of industry and nonprofit groups whose leaders say they have sought the FCC's attention on the matter for several years.

Critics of the Emergency Alert System said the commissioners' Aug. 12 notice in the Federal Register of proposed rulemaking is the first significant federal step in years to create an effective nationwide system for warning the public of emergencies.

The proposed FCC rules draw heavily on the recommendations of two groups: the nonprofit Partnership for Public Warning and the Media Security and Reliability Council, an industry-led group that serves as a federal advisory committee. The groups formed in the past two years to propose improvements to the current alert system.

FCC members appear to fully support the effort. "Our task is not easy, but we cannot afford to wait," said FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein in a statement about the alert system. "The public warning capability of communications technologies should be among the highest priorities of this agency."

The public alert system, which has existed in some form for the past 50 years, was designed to broadcast presidential messages to the public through TV and radio signals. It has never been used for that purpose. State and local government officials, however, have used it effectively for issuing severe weather warnings and Amber Alerts for missing children.

Proponents of improving the current system said the FCC's challenge is to create a coherent national warning capability. The problem isn't a lack of technology, said Kenneth Allen, executive director of the Partnership for Public Warning.

Many technologies, such as electronic messaging systems, personal digital assistants, cell phones and the Internet, could be used to reach millions of people, he said. But, he added, "nobody has sat down and put together the pieces into a coherent national warning capability."

Some proponents of a better warning capability have proposed that the Homeland Security Department oversee the alert system. Those proponents, who include Frank Lucia, retired FCC emergency communications director, said DHS officials have the necessary financial resources and can work with state, local, private and nonprofit groups to develop standards and policies.

Lucia said federal officials will struggle to get businesses and industry to carry state and local emergency messages unless more resources are invested. Industry and business officials would be less reluctant to participate "if [they] felt the government was 100 percent behind the system and provided some resources," he said.

Another problem facing the commissioners is the diminishing amount of time people spend watching television or listening to the radio, the two means of communication on which the alert system relies. Although 98 percent of households have a television, the average set is in use only 31 percent of the day, according to recent FCC statistics.

On average, Americans listen to the radio for 1.5 hours a day between 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., FCC researchers found.

Some cities and regions have adopted newer technologies for issuing emergency alerts, but other municipalities lack funds to use them, Lucia said. Making the alert system interoperable with other technologies at the local level is an additional problem.

Lucia said one technical solution under consideration is the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), a nonproprietary data interchange format that can simultaneously transmit emergency alerts through different communication networks.

The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, an international standards body, has adopted CAP as a standard.

***

FCC begins brainstorming

Federal Communications Commission officials have turned to the public for ideas on updating and fixing deficiencies in the nation's Emergency Alert System. Among the questions FCC officials have raised are:

What should be the roles of federal agencies involved in the public alert system?

Should broadcasters be required to carry state and local emergency messages?

Should FCC officials create emergency alert guidelines for states and require state officials to file their plans with the FCC?

How can digital technologies improve the system?

How effective are radio and television for sending emergency messages?

Would the public alert system be more effective if it was combined with alerts carried by alternative means, such as electronic messaging, the Internet, or cellular and satellite systems?

Should the FCC create an integrated alert system with a common interface that connects all emergency managers, regardless of the technologies they use?

What are the best ways to deliver emergency alerts to people with hearing and sight disabilities and to people who don't speak English?

Source: Federal Communications Commission

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