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NAB To Hill: Broadcasters Remain Key First Informers

A National Association of Broadcasters witness told a House subcommittee Monday that TV and radio remain key to the nation's emergency alert system.

WFMZ-TV President and GM Barry Fisher told Congress Tuesday that while targeted wireless emergency alerts are an important part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency toolkit, that does not reduce the importance of broadcasting as a ubiquitous emergency information delivery system that can reach areas where cell service may not go, or where it has been knocked out.

Fisher's testimony came in a FEMA reauthorization hearing in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management. Congress is considering legislation to improve emergency alerts via the broadcast and cable Emergency Alert System (EAS), Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) and the IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System), which can deliver alerts to multiple platforms (TV, radio, cell phones, computers, home phones and electronic billboards). IPAWS allows emergency authorities to write their own messages, authenticates them and delivers them to the various platforms.

"When the power goes out, when phone service is limited and the Internet goes down, broadcasters are always there and are always on the air," he said in his opening statement.

Fisher put in a plug for wireless carrier support for activating FM chips in their handsets, so their mobile customers can receive Mobile DTV over-the-air warnings as well as cell phone alerts, in case cell service goes down. Fisher said redundancy is key.

He added IPAWS was likely to save more lives, but that one thing to count on in emergency is things are going to fail. He said that while wireless and broadband are important, there also needs to be backup when something disrupts data traveling from point A to point B--broadcasters frequently emphasize the elegance of their one-too-many architecture. If those wired links--cell service actually travels much of its route via fiber--are disrupted by disasters or terrorism, broadcasters stand ready to get the message through.

Speaking for the National Association of Broadcasters, which supported emergency alert reform legislation in the last Congress, Fisher called for more EAS training for broadcasters, and the creation of a National Advisory Committee on Emergency Alerting, so that government and private industry stakeholders could work together on improving emergency alerts.

Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Ok) praised broadcasters for investing in emergency communications, particularly in rural areas.

Chris Guttman McCabe, representing CTIA-The Wireless Association, was asked about the efficacy of the more geotargeted alerts cell phones could provide. He said while that was certainly possible, it might not be used as much as might be thought given the mobility of users. For example, citing the Kenyan mall shooting, he said it would be important to warn not just those at the mall, but those who might be planning to go there.

Due to the government shutdown, FEMA was not represented at the hearing, which one Democratic member called unacceptable and used as a jumping off point to slam Republicans over the shutdown.

An angry and emotional Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.), who said some of her constituents were FEMA staffers who had been furloughed, said she recognized the public service of broadcasters and wireless companies, but spent the rest of her time during a round of questioning instead harshly criticizing what she called "a handful of renegade colleagues bound and determined to take this country down."

Subcommittee Chairman Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) tried to steer Edwards toward questions related to the hearing, but she demanded to use her time as she chose, which she was entitled to do.