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Hill Hears Emergency Alert Update

Federal officials told lawmakers Wednesday that they plan to have the transmission “backbone” in place by fall 2006 for upgrading the emergency alert system for the digital age.

The traditional backbone has been broadcasters, but the new aim is to create a system capable of transmitting weather, terrorism, or other emergency alerts to cell phones, PDAs, and personal computers in addition to the TVs and radios that get them today.

Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government offices designing the program could not predict when the system would be fully operational, however.

The lack of a target date for getting the system up and running frustrated Sen. Ted Stevens, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, whose home state Alaska suffers more natural disasters than any of the other 50 states (number two, he said, is Hawaii, home of co-chairman Daniel Inouye).

Today’s broadcast-based Emergency Alert System “was a wonderful system in its time, but I don’t know anybody who’s carrying radio in there pocket any longer,” Stevens said during a hearing by the committee’s Disaster Prevention Subcommittee. They've got Blackberries and cell phones and other devices, he said, pushing for a date and, when he didn't get one, said he would be asking the same question next year.

FEMA National Security Coordinator Reynold Hoover said that the system is still being designed and that he didn’t anticipate a long delay between when the system architecture is fully mapped out and when it can be implemented.

He noted that design of the system, dubbed IPAWS for Integrated Public Alert Warning System, is moving on a parallel track as an FCC rulemaking examining possible telecom rule changes necessary to implement it.

The FCC is trying to determine to what extent participation in the new system should be mandatory. Currently, broadcast stations must be equipped to retransmit emergency message from the President but inclusion of additional alerts is voluntary.

Although Sen. Jim DeMint, chairman of the Disaster Prevention Subcommittee, said Congress is considering legislation to speed implementation of the new system, representatives from the TV and wireless industries urged lawmakers to avoid passing laws that would limit communications providers’ flexibility in choosing technology and imposing a premature deadline for making it operational.