Feds consider a system to deliver warnings to the public via text
Lesley K. McCullough, Medill News Service
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Emergency alerts may soon be delivered by more
than just your television set or old-fashioned radio: The federal
government is considering alerting you via text message should a
possible natural disaster or terrorist attack directly affect your
The Senate Subcommittee on Disaster Prevention and Prediction met this
week on Capitol Hill to discuss creating a national, integrated
all-hazards alert system that uses digital technology to efficiently
send public warnings to Americans.
In case of a national emergency or natural disaster, the president
already can communicate with the nation through the Emergency Alert
System (EAS). However, during the last five decades the system has
been in place, a national alert has never been fully activated --not
even during the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The current system, developed in the Cold War era, can transmit
messages only to radios and televisions and is simply outdated, says
Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chair of the Senate Commerce, Science,
and Transportation committee.
"It was a good system in its time, but I don't know many people that
carry radios around in their pockets anymore," Stevens says.
"Therefore, we need to be able to communicate with people on their
cell phones and BlackBerries."
The technology to deliver alerts to your PC or handheld device exists,
but EAS primarily works at the state and local level to disperse
regional messages, including AMBER alerts, hazardous-material
incidents, and severe-weather warnings, Reynold Hoover, director of
the office of National Security Coordination within the Federal
Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told the committee. A national
scheme must integrate the various regional systems and technologies in
which municipalities have already invested millions of dollars across
"A public-warning interoperability solution will not be achieved by
the federal government purchasing a new national emergency alert
network or buying a software application," said Richard Taylor,
testifying on behalf of the National Emergency Alerting and Response
System Initiative. "We need standards for interfacing existing
Hoover echoed that sentiment. "We need legislation to tell us exactly
what the integration policy will be," he said.
Noting that the threat of future terrorist attacks still looms,
subcommittee chair Senator Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) said
government should play an important role in the creation of a national
"The system is too important to the nation not to get it right,"
The federal government is still exploring options. Hoover said FEMA is
planning to test a Geo-Targeted Alerting System that uses reverse 911
technologies to provide specific and targeted warnings to individual
households and businesses, such as warning of an impending
tornado. Once the infrastructure is in place and integration methods
are resolved, Hoover said, FEMA may offer a consumer opt-in system;
people could log on to a designated Web site and sign up for the types
of alert messages they want to receive. But because the system is
still in an early stage, he said, it is unclear what the cost, if any,
would be to consumers.
While an exact timeline for national implementation of an all-hazards
alert system is still unknown, Hoover said FEMA should know more from
the pilot studies next year.
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