First test finds glitches in Emergency Alert System

The first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System identified weaknesses in the broadcast network, as some stations failed to receive the test message and technical glitches created problems with audio quality.

Full results of the Nov. 9 test are not due from local broadcasters for two more weeks, but a House subcommittee received an overview of EAS performance on Dec. 13, together with updates on efforts by the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to modernize the system.

The EAS is a Cold War-era legacy system built on broadcast radio and television technology for distributing emergency messages to the public. It relies on a hierarchical architecture for relaying messages from the president. Although tested and sometimes used locally, the system has not been used on a nationwide basis.

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A variety of updated systems taking advantage of cellular, satellite and Internet technology are being developed under a standard alerting protocol. These systems now complement EAS. Plans call for eventually combining these efforts into an Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).

The top tier of the EAS hierarchy is made up of the Primary Entry Points, a network of hardened AM radio stations with backup equipment and power supplies. These stations receive emergency alerts directly from FEMA. The number of PEPs has expanded from 36 stations covering 67 percent of the U.S. population in August 2009 to 63 stations covering 84 percent of the population today. Plans call for expanding to 77 PEP stations covering 90 percent of population by the end of 2012 expect.

To complete EAS coverage, the PEP stations distribute the message for rebroadcast to other local radio and TV stations. At the bottom of the hierarchy are cable networks, which monitor local stations for the alerts.

Last month's test originally was intended to run for three minutes but was reduced to 30 seconds because of fears that it would be mistaken for a real emergency. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Subcommittee, said three of the 63 PEP stations in two states did not receive and rebroadcast the test message.

Other problems included a feedback loop that occurred in one of the PEP stations, resulting in overlapping messages being transmitted. That was the biggest problem, said Damon Penn, assistant administrator of National Continuity Programs at FEMA. “That’s an easy fix,” he said.

Suzanne Goucher, president of the Main Association of Broadcasters, said other early problems included a three-minute error in the timestamp of the FEMA message, resulting in some stations holding the message for three minutes before rebroadcasting it.

One of the programs to expand alert capability beyond radio and television is the wireless Commercial Mobile Alerting System, also known as the Personal Localized Alerting Network, a voluntary program with more than 100 cellular service providers taking part. CMAS will become operational in Washington and New York City by the end of this year, with national rollout beginning in April 2012.

CMAS will allow location-specific and group-specific alerts by text message. FEMA will administer the alert gateway for the system. The agency will receive and authenticate alerts, verify the originator, and sent the message to the infrastructure administrated by wireless carriers, who will deliver it to CMAS enabled cell phones.

CMAS is part of the broader IPAWS, being developed by FEMA and the FCC. IPAWS, which dates to a 2006 executive order, would integrate channels for delivering alerts into a single system using all forms of communications, including the Internet. It will leverage the emerging Common Alerting Protocol Emergency Data Exchange Language standard. FEMA adopted the CAP standard in 2010.

“IPAWS has moved from a requirements-based, single technology network approach to an applications-based, open standards platform approach,” Penn said.

Denham and ranking subcommittee member Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) have introduced a bill, H.R. 2904, that would create a framework and timetable for completing IPAWS. It would create an advisory committee of government and industry members to direct the technical work and would authorize $13.4 million in each of the next two years for the program.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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