Senate committee OKs national alert bill

A Senate committee has approved a bill to create a national alert system that would take advantage of traditional broadcast media, the Internet, wireless phones, handheld computers and other forums to warn people about impending disasters.

The proposed Warning, Alert and Response Network Act would also authorize the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to create and manage a national tsunami warning system based on an existing system along the Pacific coast. The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has referred the bill to the full Senate.

According to a Senate report on the bill, the national alert system would fill gaps left by the existing national network and the country's regional networks.

The federal Emergency Alert System relies on cable and broadcast television and radio to sound the alarm, supplemented by the All Hazards NOAA Weather Radio program. More modern state and local systems send alerts to cell phones, e-mail accounts and other devices, but their coverage is limited.

The Senate bill "would ensure that regardless of where individuals are or what kind of communication technologies they are using, they would receive a life-saving alert," the report states. "Alerts would be transmitted in response to all threats to public safety, including natural disasters, man-made accidents and terrorist incidents."

The legislation would establish a network for delivering alerts across an array of media, including wireless communications; digital, analog, cable and satellite television; satellite and traditional radio; and sirens. The bill also proposes including nontraditional media such as "radios on a stick" but does not elaborate.

Federal, state and local emergency managers would be able to send alerts and additional instructions to targeted geographic regions. But the system would be limited to situations that are truly dangerous, the report states. If it is activated needlessly, people might begin ignoring alerts -- what the report describes as the car-alarm syndrome.

The bill would also establish a grant program to help remote communities buy and install sirens and related equipment.

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