home North America, Science & Technology In the United States: The Reform of the Public Warning System

In the United States: The Reform of the Public Warning System

The grave importance of setting policies and procedures to effectively implement a Public Warning System

In the near future in Washington , D.C., at the beginning of rush hour, a highway overpass collapses. An ominous cloud of dust billows and drifts towards the city.

Commuters panic, wondering if they are exposed to a radioactive or biological agent. An emergency radio broadcast describes a detour to get everyone off the highway quickly. Some commuters have weather radios stashed in the back seat that automatically turn on and broadcast the same message. Those at home watching television see the alert crawl across the bottom of the screen; those still in the office receive an email or pop-up window. Cell phones and pagers ring with automated voice mail and text messages. People are advised to stay indoors until the nature of the dust cloud is known, to check into a hospital if they feel ill, and to call a hotline with any information about the collapse.

When the incident is better understood, the mayor sends a message from the central emergency shelter with more detailed instructions. It is sent directly to government weather radio and to commercial stations that will pass on the message to other stations. If warranted, the president may, for the first time ever, invoke the Emergency Alert System to make a statement that every broadcaster in the country will be required to carry.

The fictional scenario just described showcases a public warning system that may become operational in the near future. In many situations, a successful public warning could save lives.

“Today, if we needed to warn people that a dirty nuclear device had just been detonated on the Mall, and that they should avoid downtown Washington,” said Peter Ward, founding chairman of the Partnership for Public Warning, speaking in front of a Congressional subcommittee on Sept. 22, 2004, “we could only reach directly perhaps 30 percent of those who need to know using all means of warning currently implemented. And the time delay could be many minutes when every second counts.”

A Short History of Public Warning

President Truman established the program called the Control of Electromagnetic Radiation, or “Conelrad,” in 1951 to protect the public from nuclear attack. Conelrad required all radio and television stations to shut down in the event of a Soviet attack so enemy planes could not use their activity as landmarks. Radios sold between 1953 and 1963 had triangles called “Civil Defense marks” on the two AM frequencies designated for warnings following attack.

Conelrad was renamed the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) in the 1950s and the Emergency Alert System (EAS) in 1994. EAS is operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), now part of the Department of Homeland Security. It relies on an information chain to reach commercial stations, providing information to 34 first-tier stations that cover 90 percent of the country and pass the message to second-tier stations.

The National Weather Radio, produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was launched in 1975 as the only U.S. government-owned and -operated radio. It delivers messages directly into private homes without relying on a commercial information chain.

Greg Romano, director of National Weather Service Public Affairs, said an EAS alert begins with the message “We are activating the Emergency Alert System” and a tone. The warning is aired over the radio or crawls across the bottom of the television screen. If it is a weather alert—the vast majority of uses of the EAS—the text is written by the local forecast office.

Broadcasters are required to interrupt their programming in the event of an EAS presidential message. However, as Glenn Collins wrote for the New York Times on Dec. 21, 2001, “No president has ever used the current system or its technical predecessors in the last 50 years, despite the Soviet missile crisis, a presidential assassination, the Oklahoma City bombing, major earthquakes and three recent high alert terrorist warnings.”

It is optional for broadcasters to send state and local warnings, and optional for states even to have coordinators of a warning program. There is no federal coordinator of public warning.

The Department of Homeland Security recently introduced two pilot programs to improve public warning: a partnership with National Weather Radio as of June 17, 2004 and another with the Association of Public Television Stations as of Oct. 21, 2004.

The Weather Radio Pilot Program

The National Weather Service has broadcasted weather emergencies since the 1970s on weather radios, devices made specifically for that purpose, which turn on automatically when there is a message. Other civil emergency messages, including Amber Alerts for missing children, are sent to local forecast offices by telephone or fax, where the forecaster on duty authenticates and disseminates them.

The Department of Homeland Security wants to streamline information at the state level to avoid duplicating work for NWS and to deliver a consistent message to the public. On June 17, 2004, the departments agreed to begin to develop policies to give Homeland Security direct access to weather radio (sometimes called “All-Hazards radio”) as an augmentation of EAS. The reform, if successful, should achieve the goal by late 2005 with the capability to broadcast presidential addresses and messages in English or Spanish.

A National Weather Service Instruction document dated Sept. 8, 2004 establishes seven criteria for issuing a non-weather-related warning. Among them, the warning must originate from the government, assist with an immediate public safety need, and there must be no other way to spread the information fast enough. Or, as Jim Gabbert, the coordinator of California ‘s Emergency Alert System, was quoted in Wired in August 2004 on the subject of public alerts, “They’re not for news stories, they’re not to tell people to be calm. They’re to tell people to do something.”

From Washington , the Department of Homeland Security will alert NWS state offices of perceived local threats. It will be the responsibility of the senior NWS weather forecaster on duty to approve the government request for a public warning if he or she determines an immediate threat to his or her county. Nuclear attack warnings fall under a separate agreement between FEMA and NOAA.

An official at FEMA, speaking on condition of anonymity, said others at FEMA perceive that the lack of consistent procedures has crippled the NWS All-Hazards system. Even if an individual owned a weather radio, he said, he or she was unlikely to receive a warning during an emergency “unless your county had an arrangement with the NOAA weather radio regional office where you lived, and if a tanker truck turned over spewing ammonia all over the place, and the emergency alert manager for your county picked up the phone–and this is the only way he or she could have done it–and called the NOAA weather radio alert office and tell them we’ve got a tanker truck turned over…that could take several minutes. Calling them up, giving them the message, and they have to convert it to some text message that would go over the NOAA radio system.”

The June 17 agreement requires that the text of the message come from an official at the local emergency operations center or from Homeland Security.

About 13 percent of U.S. homes have weather radios. Retailing for about $40, they are concentrated in the Midwest and Florida where people face tornadoes and hurricanes. Yet “terrorism is more likely to be directed at the Northeast Corridor or California,” noted Kenneth Allen, executive director of the Partnership for Public Warning, suggesting that reforms to weather radio may not impact people in the locations where terrorism warnings are most needed.

The Digital Television Pilot Program

FEMA and the non-profit Association of Public Television Stations (APTS) began a six-month pilot program on Oct. 21, 2004 in the Washington , D.C. region called the Digital Emergency Alert System, which uses local digital television broadcasters and at least two cell phone companies. Television, unlike radio, provides information to both hearing- and sight-impaired people.

John Lawson, APTS president and CEO, said, in an APTS version of the press release announcing the launch of the program, that digital television is “not a silver bullet for public warning, but it brings unique capabilities to the task. It avoids communication bottlenecks such as the ones we experienced here and in New York on 9/11. The pilot will explore how to interface this data with phone, cellular, cable, and other networks to reach the largest possible number of citizens in an emergency.”

Lawson said in November that the pilot program will be considered successful if data sent from FEMA, passing through a television network in Arlington , Va. , can be received by these various devices. One of the first goals was to establish bandwidth and technologically secure links between FEMA and the television stations.

“Everything we’re sending out is internet protocol, all ones and zeros,” Lawson said. This enables a variety of devices to receive data and the encryption of data on a need-to-know basis. For example, a message could be tailored to hospitals. Lawson said APTS is interested in the technology, not the content, of the warnings.

Few people today receive digital television data. Lawson expects a digital television warning system to be primarily of use to institutions such as schools and first responders that can afford several hundred dollars for digital conversion.

APTS is trying to recruit more cell phone companies into the project. Lawson said, “FEMA’s goal is to reach a lot of different reception devices in an emergency. If you’re not in front of a television or computer when the president wants to give you a message, they want to at least reach your cell phone.”

The trade journal Broadcasting and Cable said the FCC announced in August it would consult with Homeland Security to improve the system, possibly sending messages to computers, PDAs and cell phones. Because disasters can interfere with cell phone reception and internet access, the FCC is investigating the possibility of automatically turning on TVs and radios.

Towards New Policies

When assuming the government should inform the public of terrorist strikes, it is important to remember that it recently happened the other way around: the public informed the government. As the Report of the 9/11 Commission put it, “Most federal agencies learned about the crash in New York from CNN.”

The Partnership for Public Warning has concluded that the US does not have an effective warning system because, although it has the technology, it lacks policies and protocols.

“Nothing else has been done. I don’t think they put any procedures in place for actually doing that [using weather radio for Homeland Security alerts].” Executive director Kenneth Allen said in November 2004, referring to NOAA’s press conference with Homeland Security in June.

He had the same criticism of the APTS digital television project. “We’ve all said all along that the technology exists. What they’re not addressing in setting the policies, standards, and procedures.”

Allen said public warning requires specialized knowledge that only local officials have, and that “local officials have to have the authority when to warn people and what to tell them to do. You can’t just say, ‘evacuate the city.’ You’ve got to tell them which roads to take. Warning is a local issue and a local responsibility.” He specifically mentioned the need to loop in the “first responders,” namely fire, police, and emergency medical personnel, who are “the first to arrive at an event and the last to leave.”

“There is a tendency among the people in DHS [Homeland Security] to think they’re the only ones who have the information and to want to centralize things,” he added.

Allen does not feel the federal government is genuinely concerned about a public warning system. “The president did address the nation [on Sept. 11] but he just went on regular TV,” he said. While that may have satisfied the president’s personal responsibility to make a statement, it “didn’t help the state and local officials who had to communicate with the public.”

Lawson, who works in Washington for APTS, understands that a warning system would merely mitigate catastrophe. “The emergency responders are fascinated with how to evacuate Washington—and you can’t do it,” he emphasized, “but you might want to send information about routes that need to be blocked so that they can be prepared for the rush of people trying to leave.”

One of the challenges in developing public warning in the US will be centralizing responsibility for a service that has been and will continue to be used at the local level. People must also be convinced to invest in new technologies, from weather radios to digital television receivers, when a sense of security is finally returning years after the last terrorist attack on New York and Washington .

Allen is optimistic about the impact that a good system can have on the public in time of crisis. He said, “We know from the research and the history that if you provide timely and accurate information, people will make the right decisions.”


Tucker Lieberman

Tucker Lieberman is the author of the poetry book Wild Mushrooms. He studied philosophy, journalism, and life coaching and has worked in software testing and user experience design for an investment company. His essays have been published widely, including in an anthology that won a Lambda Literary Award in 2011. Originally from the US, he lives in Colombia with his husband. https://about.me/tuckerlieberman