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Emergency Notification Systems

emergency alert systems This section of our technical library presents articles written about Emergency Alert Systems and Disaster Recovery definitions, terms and related information.

The 911Broadcast emergency notification and alert service can deliver a large number of phone calls using a network of phone systems employing digital phone lines simultaneously. Should a disaster such as a snow storm, wild fire or flood hit your area, 911Broadcast systems can alert your community quickly providing specific instructions if an evacuation is required.

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FCC’s Emergency Alert System Coming to Your Cell Phone Soon

Dave Eberhart, NewsMax.com
Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2004

The old Cold-War era broadcasts – with the shrieking signal on your TV and radio – may be finding new life in the post 9/11 era.

In fact, Emergency Alerts may become as ubiquitous as your cell phones and wireless devices, if the FCC has their way.

The Emergency Alert System (EAS) has “fallen into disarray and needs major reform,” concluded FCC Chairman Michael Powell recently as he announced agency plans to revamp the system, according to a report in Broadcasting and Cable.

Powell and his Federal Communications Commission planners envision a modernized system to replace the old system’s architecture, taking fuller advantage of the digital age.

Featured would be instant alerts transmitted via a sophisticated new EAS that could beam warnings about crises from local TV and radio stations to TVs, radios, personal computers and an array of digital devices -- including cell phones and PDAs.

The FCC, working in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security, has already begun to solicit suggestions from TV companies, cell phone makers and public-safety officials on how new digital-TV technology can improve the system. On the drawing boards: DTV alerts that could turn TVs and radios on automatically so residents could receive warnings even when the device is turned off – at night when they are asleep, for instance.

“A lot has changed since 1951,” said Powell in a reference to what most Baby Boomers recall as the weekly 30-second tests of the old Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) -- an ear-piercing whistle and stern voiceover, “This is only a test.”

Currently, EAS tests are accomplished monthly -- with a tone lasting only eight seconds. TV stations no longer must display the EBS logo during tests and can continue regular programming while a notice for the test tracks across the top of the screen.

But despite such cosmetic upgrades over the years, critics point to a significant flaw.

Despite its ability to alert citizens in a variety of emergency situations, broadcasters have been required to install and test equipment for a single purpose: to relay a nationwide message from the president to the American people in the event of a full-scale nuclear attack.

As things stand now, the nation’s broadcasters carry local emergency alerts -- but only voluntarily. By 2007, however, the FCC hopes to require local TV and radio outlets to carry local alerts, with other required elements such as delivering alerts to cell phones and PDAs to follow.

If there is one big impetus to the ambitious project, it is the experience of 9/11, the closest the U.S. has come to a national attack since Pearl Harbor.

Incredibly, EAS was not activated during the aerial assaults.

Part of the problem in the Big Apple was that most New York TV stations’ antennas were located on the roof of the World Trade Center. However even that hardware consideration becomes academic in the face of the fact that city emergency managers simply failed to issue an alert.

The dormancy of the system during the greatest domestic crisis in the country’s history caused many to question whether the EAS as presently configured served any purpose.


FCC regulators have taken up the challenge, announcing that the goal now is to design the most efficient -- and mandatory -- transmission of warnings about storms, toxic threats, medical facilities and evacuation routes during all local emergencies.

The transformation may not be cost-intensive. Nearly all stations are already equipped to relay local alerts because equipment necessary to relay presidential alerts also recognizes the codes used for local tornado, fire or missing-child alerts.

Even those stations needing some upgrades would be looking at an expenditure of $300-$5,000.

“Cost is not a factor in stations’ willingness to participate,” says Clay Freinwald, corporate engineer for Entercom Communications and EAS committee chairman for the Society of Broadcast Engineers.

What has been a factor in the past is the system’s penchant for interrupting broadcasts -- annoying viewers with frequent warnings of thunderstorms. Today, nearly 80 percent of local alerts are generated by the National Weather Service, primarily in the “Tornado Alley” of the Midwest and the hurricane-prone states of the Gulf Coast.

But annoying or not, the era of mandatory local alerts is certainly on the horizon.

Beyond the lessons of 9/11, there have been other deadly learning curves at the local level.

In a San Diego County wildfire, sheriff’s deputies began evacuating residents at 11 p.m. the night before, but no one thought to activate EAS for another four hours -- too late to catch more than a handful of TV viewers. Consequently, twelve unwarned citizens died in the fires.

Even though wildfires are a frequent occurrence in southern California, local officials had never before activated broadcast alerts for a fire.

Meanwhile, some observers like Jim Gabbert, who oversees California's Emergency Alert System and serves on a national advisory committee, is glad to see the FCC stepping up to bat. But will it be too little too late, he worries:

“Unfortunately, I think it will take a major catastrophe where hundreds of thousands of people are killed for people to understand what (we) have been saying,” said Jim Gabbert, whose committee has been sounding a strident alarm over the nation’s early warning deficit for the past two years.

Indeed, there is no shortage of critics of the present system – some of whom look to what they percieve as built-in technical deficiencies.

For instance, EAS remains much like it was three decades ago.

A government official triggers the alert system, and radio and TV stations -- along with cable companies -- move to get an emergency message on the airwaves. For instance, during an emergecy, the president records a message to Americans. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) then transmits the message via telephone lines to 34 pre-chosen radio stations covering 90 percent of the country.

In many states, the systems rely entirely on these designated first-tier radio stations, which broadcast live 24 hours, to interrupt their programs to air digital warning tones with audio messages embedded inside.

Small, so-called second-tier stations can also detect the tones and broadcast them to even smaller third-tier stations. Along the way, the stations are supposed to pull out the messages and air them.

“A lot of people find fault with that and call it a daisy chain,” says Warren Shulz, who oversees the alert system in Illinois. Shulz adds that the multiple-station approach requires the top stations to have a person in the studio all the time and can break down if a disaster like an earthquake cripples the stations in the first tier and the backup second tier.

While some broadcasters have complained that authorities use the system too often, especially for weather warnings and “Amber alerts” about missing children, others occupy the opposite side of the spectrum – maintaining that authorities, including police, fire and emergency-management departments, forget that the alert system even exists.

Shulz thinks that relying on new gadgetry alone would be a mistake:

“Ask the people down in Florida how their cell phones and internet connections are working,” he said. By contrast, he argues, many radio stations can operate on generator power for several days.

For his part, Gabbert wants more federal oversight:

“My biggest concern is that someone on the federal level has to be responsible for the national, state and local alerting system. It can't be different groups in different places running into each other like bumper cars.”

For instance, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency refuses to operate EAS. Instead, the state broadcasters association must run the system on its own. A new federal system could resolve such discrepancies.