National Emergency Warning Systems Go Wireless

Most citizens equate the national emergency alert system with an annoying green screen accompanied by a high-pitched screech that inevitably interrupts a favorite TV program. However, recent natural disasters have left Americans wondering why government officials are still tied to old technologies—land-line phones, TVs, radios, and even wailing sirens—in their efforts to warn citizens about emergencies.

Updating public emergency notification operations has become a top priority for local and national legislators in 2007, and Congress recently earmarked $20 million to update a system that hasn't undergone a major overhaul since the 1960s. One proposed solution requires no new equipment and relies on a technology most Americans carry around with them everywhere they go: cell phones. Wireless technologies could take emergency notifications off the grid and put them directly on citizens' cell phones within seconds. 

When the alarm goes off, government officials currently deploy messages via the Emergency Alert System (EAS) to 36 "primary entry points"—radio stations that cover only 90% of the continental United States, according to the nonprofit organization Partnership for Public Warning (PPW). Additionally, many communities use the public switched telephone network, which sends out calls to registered land-line phones—although only at the rate of a few hundred per hour, which is hardly enough to cover even small communities.

Back in 2004, the PPW did a study that found the EAS to be hopelessly outdated. They recommended: "In addition to radio, television, and cable, people now have internet and phones, pagers, etc., that must be a part of the warning process." Not long afterwards, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the southern United States and drew widespread attention to how poorly the government communicated with citizens during the emergency.

Following President Bush's call for EAS reform, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) turned to wireless technologies, which would allow them to bypass the standard relay method and target wireless devices used in a specified geographic area with the same digital signal being transmitted to television and radio broadcasters.

Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) urged Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff to launch a multi-state experiment to test new emergency notification systems, which incorporate wireless technologies, to close what she calls the "public warning gap." One out of eight American households don't plug in their land lines, according to a recent National Center for Health Statistics survey, and 29 million Americans suffer from hearing loss. Both groups are currently left out of the emergency relay.

New methods that incorporate television and radio broadcasts with wireless warnings have been tested in Texas, Florida, the District of Columbia, and elsewhere. The wireless emergency system is often dubbed "reverse 911"—instead of a person calling the emergency dispatcher, the emergency dispatcher calls him. Most cell phones come equipped with the technology that could make this happen, according to the European nonprofit organization Civil Emergency Alert Service Association. Instead of using voice or signal channels, which go to individual phones, emergency alerts could be sent out along a broadcast-control channel that would deliver the message to all activated cellular devices within a particular area.

Not only would wireless notifications be more accurate, they would be faster, according to Jeff Slivocka, president of EM Alert, which is developing and testing a wireless emergency alert system. Tests have shown EM Alert is able to deliver messages to 85% of devices within an affected area in 90 seconds. "You have to put the right message in the right hands at the right time," Slivocka says.

But getting word to the people isn't the only way FEMA is hoping to leverage wireless networking capabilities within the EAS. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) supports a bill that would set aside a certain amount of 700MHz bandwidth to establish an interoperable 4G wireless network through which local, state, and national emergency officials like fire and police departments can coordinate efforts.

Two wireless public-safety network companies, Frontline Wireless and Cyren Call Communications, are dueling over access to the bandwidth, which would be sold to cable companies but cleared for national emergency use if the bill passes. Cable and broadband providers argue that setting aside up to 30MHz of this valuable bandwidth is going too far, to the detriment of daily communications use. But, according to a statement from McCain, "I do not lay awake at night wondering why my children can't surf the internet on their cell phone from any location at any time, but I do worry about whether we will be adequately prepared to respond to the next disaster."

While you still may have to suffer through the occasional "this is only a test" interrupting your TV programming, the real test will be whether federal and local authorities can make wireless warnings a reality before the next disaster strikes.