Perspective: EAS in a State of Alert

As a former FCC Chairman, I have long been aware of the need for effective emergency alert networks. The recent fires and mudslides in my home county of Santa Barbara, Calif., have only reinforced this belief.

In a world in which technology can find your favorite barista and get you there before the foam flattens on your latte, any failure to optimize our nation’s emergency preparedness is indefensible. Thousands of lives are lost when victims cannot reach emergency responders, or when emergency personnel cannot effectively warn residents or find possible victims.

And it may get worse.

One of the major components of our emergency response network is the number portability administration center, or NPAC. This somewhat arcane entity provides the critical overarching database that associates people with certain telephone numbers, providing delivery instructions for billions of phone calls and text messages each day.

To realize the importance of this function, one need only consider California’s recent fires and deadly mudslides. The emergency alerts were in some cases over-inclusive, creating needless panic, or under-inclusive or late.

Imagine the possible toll if no one got the message.

In just a matter of weeks, the NPAC will shut down and a new system — still being tested — will go live. Unlike most major IT transitions, the new system coming online was created with insufficient transparency and testing. And, with just a few weeks to go before launch, there is no workable rollback system or safety net in place.

Fortunately, the current FCC chairman has acknowledged this situation is unacceptable. In a letter, he demanded that all parties reach an agreement on a workable rollback before the regional cutovers begin.

Recalibrating old cellular data towards an entirely new system has proven difficult in the past, and, in this case, some experts estimate that there is only a 4% chance the new NPAC will work properly. The complex coordination across thousands of service providers leaves room for error, and the timeline for implementation – initially scheduled for one year – has been slashed to just a couple of months.

If the country’s telephone database is corrupted, local governments and utility providers may lose their ability to disseminate critical information during emergency situations until after it is too late.

Picking up the pieces from California’s recent natural disasters will take a unified, collective effort from residents, businesses and lawmakers.

One such effort will be to encourage our regulators and our telecommunications providers to insist that there will be no corrupted data when the current, proven system is turned off. That could mean urging more testing, more transparency and more time spent preparing for the new NPAC launch.

Failure to do so could risk even more lives during the next storm or wildfire, putting Santa Barbara — and counties like it around the United States — in danger.

Dennis R. Patrick served as commissioner and then chairman of the FCC from 1987 to 1989. He is currently president and chief executive of Pillar Pictures, an independent film and television production company.