Senator: Bring back radio alert system

A Senate committee chairman suggested last week that the country should return to broadcasting Cold War-era radio emergency alerts as part of a new national alert system.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said simple, cheap radio warnings could be an efficient part of an interoperable system for televisions, cellular phones and all new communications systems.

“I come from the generation when we only had radio, you know,” he said at a hearing on hurricane prediction. “We had a national alert system, and we had it tested about every two weeks, as I recall. I wonder if we ought not see if we couldn’t get that kind of radio back into the average family’s hands.”

Stevens was referring to the Emergency Broadcast System, implemented in 1963, which permits the president to address the country during an emergency. Radio and TV stations tested the system at random times during the day.

After cable television became popular, the Emergency Alert System (EAS) replaced the older system in 1997.

The United States does not have an interoperable standard alert system for every disaster.

Last week, a bipartisan group of senators, including Stevens, introduced a bill that would provide alerts for all emergencies in addition to information about where to find food, water and life-sustaining resources. The Warning, Alerts, and Response Network Act would establish a network for transmitting those alerts across cell phones, handheld devices, digital TV, analog TV, cable TV, satellite TV, radio and sirens.

C. Patrick Roberts, president of the Florida Association of Broadcasters, agreed with Stevens that radio-issued alerts could solve many of the communications problems that plague rescue operations.

“After the [2001 terrorist attacks], cell phones didn’t work within about an hour because they all got jammed,” he said. “After a hurricane, radio is the only thing left, and I think we’ve got to keep it as the basic ingredient.”

Roberts added that satellite communications might also become inoperable during emergencies because satellite dishes move.

He later testified that Congress should recommend priority fuel status for EAS radio broadcasters in disaster areas.

Technology is not the only impediment to disaster planning and recovery.

The majority of states and counties do not have an operational EAS system tied to all levels of government for all possible emergencies, Roberts said.

Florida only recently began using a unified approach to respond to all threats, including hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes, chemical spills and terrorist attacks.

Last year, as Hurricane Charley threatened Charlotte County, Fla., the system told residents – from Naples to Sarasota -- to seek immediate shelter.

“The United States needs an [EAS] national program that can be activated by a mayor, county official, governor or the president,” Roberts said.

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