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Broadcasters Seek Better Emergency Alert System

With the aftermath of Katrina still unfolding, broadcasters are developing new systems to get the word out in a disaster.

The Emergency Alert System was never activated by the White House or by state or local governments during Katrina, but many think a national alert system should be exploited more frequently—and more efficiently.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, WNET New York and a number of partners and government officials began developing a way to use broadcast spectrum dedicated to education (known as Educational Broadband Service, or EBS) as a tool for solving the communication problems encountered on 9/11.

The system, formerly known as Smart Nets but now dubbed GUARD (Geospatially-aware Urban Approaches for Responding to Disasters), relies on small 30-pound antenna/transmission systems placed throughout a town or city and allows a command center to send live video, audio communications and data files with, for example, instructions or floor plans to PDA-type devices.

The trials in New York are going so well that WNET Director of Digital Convergence Stephen Carol Cahnmann says the developers are considering expanding to another city, perhaps St. Louis.

“Now is the time for us to sit down at the table with public-safety planners and get more coordination planning,” he says.

According to David Ihrie, CTO of Rosettex Technology & Ventures Group, EBS has good coverage across most of the country and is licensed to organizations whose mission includes public service.

Additionally, the 9/11 Commission's report recommended dedicating more spectrum to first responders. “It looks to me like all the stars are aligning to making this a good national solution,” Ihrie says. “And given that much of the infrastructure is in place, it could be a much faster and less expensive roll-out than other solutions.”

Nashville Public Television (NPT) also is working on a new emergency system, called MetroCast. NPT, local first responders and technology provider SpectraRep were planning to test the system later this month, but Hurricane Katrina has caused the trial to be postponed.

Where WNET's test uses EBS, NPT's relies on DTV spectrum and includes datacasting. With that spectrum, government officials can send out text files like documents, maps or even video to PCs and receivers in police cars, fire trucks and other emergency vehicles.

Says Bass, “We want to use datacasting as the backbone of the alert system rather than relying on faxes or e-mails.”