On a hot summer afternoon, commuters in downtown Baltimore are shocked
to see massive plumes of smoke rising near the football stadium a few blocks
west. Fire trucks and ambulances race to the scene, and panic starts to spread.
Suddenly, at precisely the same moment, every mobile phone in the area
Displayed on handset screens, TVs, Blackberries and Palms is a stern
text announcement: A train has derailed near downtown.
Chemicals from tanker cars have spilled and caught fire. Mayor Martin O'Malley
has ordered evacuation of downtown. I-395 and all roads adjacent to the stadium
complex are closed to inbound traffic.
Emergency planners envision such instant alerts transmitted via a
sophisticated new Emergency Alert System (EAS) that could beam warnings about
local crises from local TV and radio stations to TVs, radios, personal
computers and an array of digital devices. An always on, wireless alert system
would leapfrog the current architecture, a relic of the Cold War that nearly
every communications expert derides as hopelessly outdated.
EAS has "fallen into disarray and needs major reform," proclaimed FCC
Chairman Michael Powell as he unveiled agency plans to revamp the system.
The overhaul comes as TV stations and, eventually, radio stations
convert to all-digital broadcasts capable of delivering multiple channels
packed with unprecedented amounts of information.
Two weeks ago, the FCC began soliciting suggestions from TV companies,
cellphone makers and public-safety officials on how new digital-TV technology
can improve the system. By 2007, the FCC hopes to require local TV and radio
outlets to carry local alerts. Other required elements, such as delivering
alerts to cellphones and PDAs, could follow.
One ingenious new feature the FCC is already seeking: DTV alerts that
could turn TVs and radios on automatically so residents could receive warnings
even when the device is turned off.
Such ubiquitous reach reflects a dramatic evolution from the quaint
system created in the 1950s. Most Americans still remember the weekly 30-second
tests of the Emergency Broadcast System, etched into their memories by its
ear-piercing whistle and stern voiceover, "This is only a test." Today's EAS
features a less-jarring, monthly test 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 crawls across the screen.
Today, only about 1,000 local alerts a year are transmitted over the
system; nearly 80% are generated by the National Weather Service, primarily in
the "Tornado Alley" of the Midwest and the hurricane-prone states of the Gulf
Despite repeated upgrades since the 1950s, the improvements have never
addressed the system's most glaring flaw: its lost potential. Despite its
ability to alert citizens in a variety of emergency scenarios, 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, a threat that seems almost quaint in today's
post-Cold War world. Cable systems were ordered to add alerts to all their
channels in 1997, and DBS companies are likely to be included in the current
overhaul. Ironically, the single mandatory component of the EAS's charter has
never been triggered.
Only about half the nation's 14,000 broadcasters carry local emergency
alerts, but they do it voluntarily. Those that decline to participate do so for
a variety of reasons: cost, poor coordination with state emergency officials,
and fear of annoying viewers with frequent warnings of thunderstorms.
Nearly all stations are 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. Those that must upgrade would need to
spend only $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
Regulators say the goal now is to design the most efficient transmission
of warnings about storms, toxic threats, medical facilities and evacuation
routes during local emergencies. The idea is to take advantage of new
capabilities offered by the switch to digital TV and the proliferation of other
digital communications in the past decade. If special EAS chips were added to
radios, TVs, cellphones and other wireless devices, citizens could access
alerts away from their homes or could be awakened by broadcast warnings.
The system's wasted potential was magnified during the 9/11 attacks, the
closest the U.S. has come to a national attack since Pearl Harbor. Sadly, EAS
was not activated, in part because most New York TV stations' antennas were
located atop the World Trade Center but also because city emergency managers
failed to issue an alert. If the system could lie dormant during such a
nationwide trauma, many question whether EAS serves any purpose today.
The flaws are exposed in local tragedies, too. Last summer, 12 people
died in a San Diego County wildfire during the early-morning hours. Even though
sheriff's deputies began evacuating residents at 11 p.m. the night before, none
thought to activate EAS for another four hours, too late to catch more than a
handful of TV viewers.
A grand jury investigating the debacle blamed the EAS failure on poor
communication between fire fighters and the San Diego County Emergency Services
Office, the agency responsible for requesting emergency alerts from
broadcasters. Even though wildfires are a frequent occurrence in southern
California, local officials had never activated broadcast alerts for a
In the wake of the 2001 attacks, the FCC organized an industry advisory
group to explore an EAS overhaul. The patchwork of state and municipal
activation procedures makes the system vulnerable to glitches, the FCC
Today's EAS evolved from the Control of Electromagnetic Radiation,
created in 1949 by President Truman so he could address the American people
following a nuclear attack. (Aside from any physical damage caused by a nuclear
blast, a radio or TV station would suffer only temporary loss of its
The agency was renamed the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) in the
1950s, and President Eisenhower allowed broadcasters to add National Weather
Service alerts if they chose. In 1963, President Kennedy added state and local
emergency information to broadcasters' options. EBS was converted to an
automated system in 1997 and renamed the Emergency Alert System.
Here's how the system works today: During a dire national emergency, the
president records a message to Americans. The Federal Emergency Management
Administration (FEMA) transmits the message via telephone lines to 34
pre-chosen radio stations covering 90% of the country, typically AM news
stations far enough away from likely nuclear targets. For instance, FEMA
designated WBAL(AM) Baltimore a primary station but selected none in
Washington, where an attack is likely.
All other TV and radio stations must monitor those 34 primary stations
or state emergency operating centers. The FEMA signal with the president's
message theoretically overrides regular programming. Alerts generated by the
National Weather Service as well as state and local emergency agencies
piggyback on this system.
For now, the National Association of Broadcasters is promising
cooperation in meeting the FCC's goals. "We look forward to reviewing FCC
proposals and working with local and state public-safety officials," a
spokesman says. But individual stations not currently participating are mixed
on what new requirements would mean.
The wide disparity in the effectiveness of local systems is due partly
to the fact that state governments are in charge of local alerts. "In some
areas, the local-alert systems are highly developed," says Freinwald. "In
others, they are dysfunctional."
For instance, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency refuses to
operate EAS; the state broadcasters association must run the system on its own.
A new federal system could resolve such inconsistencies.
Some station managers fear constant interruptions unless required
warnings are kept to a minimum. Frequent severe-thunderstorm warnings for towns
on the periphery of weather patterns, for example, are a regular summer
Still, in an age when terrorist threats loom over the entire country,
such minor quibbles may seem unimportant. Says Powell, "A lot has changed since
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