Bush orders overhaul of public alert system

President Bush has directed the secretary of the Homeland Security Department to develop a public alert and warning system that uses the latest communications technology.

The current Emergency Alert System, which relies primarily on broadcast television and radio to inform the public about threats such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other emergencies, will be a component of the new system, according to the executive order that Bush signed June 26.

But the new system will allow emergency managers more flexibility in how they alert the public and what information they disseminate. The system should be able to target specific geographic locations and deliver alerts in various formats, based on personal user preference, and in multiple languages.

The system, serving federal, state and local governments, should deliver information "through as many communication pathways as practicable," the executive order states.

DHS will take the lead in developing nationwide standards and protocols for alerts and warnings, but the department can rely on the expertise of the Commerce Department in areas such as telecommunications, dissemination systems and related technology issues.

The Federal Communications Commission, meanwhile, will ensure that the nation's communications systems are prepared to support the alert and warning system.

Public safety officials and policy-makers have become increasingly concerned about shortcomings in the current alert system in recent years. In August 2004, FCC officials announced they were seeking ideas to improve the existing system. In December 2005, the commission approved rules expanding the Emergency Alert System to cover digital broadcast media and requested ideas to expand the reach of the system using other technology.

Last September, a Senate committee approved the Warning, Alert and Response Network Act, which is now awaiting a vote. A House committee is considering its own version.

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