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FEMA Says Alert System Test Yielded Positive, Unexpected Results

11/21/2011 -

Things didn’t go exactly as planned with FEMA’s emergency alert test earlier this month, unless your ideal emergency alert involves Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” blasting from your TV as danger approaches. But despite its shortcomings--including some of the public not getting any alerts at all--FEMA, the FCC, and NOAA agree the test was a success. In fact, they say it went better than expected.

Damon Penn, assistant administrator for National Continuity Programs, explained the successes, shortcomings, and unexpected results of the first nationwide Emergency Alert System (EAS) test in response to questions from subcommittee chairman Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) at a Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications hearing on Thursday.

The national Emergency Alert System is an alert and warning system that can be activated by the President, if needed, to provide information to the public during emergencies. NOAA can also use the system for more localized alerts. “We have equipment that is as old as 50 years that we’ve never turned on before. So what else do you have that’s 50 years old that you’ve never turned on and ensured that it worked properly?” Penn said of the test.

On November 9th, FEMA attempted to broadcast a three minute set of beeps and tones with a message scrolling the screen, followed by a voice repeating, “this is a test,” across all regularly scheduled television, radio, cable, and satellite programs with mixed results.

The Massachusetts State Police reported that the test went smoothly, calling it “good practice in case of real national emergency alert.” But based on reports from Twitter, many people had their channels change inexplicably, some had their TV screens act erratically, and for a number of watchers the audio was heard, but instead of announcing "This is a test," itplayed Lady Gaga[2].

Even so, Penn says that for the most part the test did what it was supposed to do. The message system was designed to transmit messages from the White House to broadcasters and from broadcasters to the public. And that is the part, according to Penn, that went better than expected.

“In some states we had over 90 percent coverage through the broadcasters and out through their stations out to the public,” Penn said. All 63 entry point stations received the alert, and 60 were able to rebroadcast.

“We also found it was a success that the public was not alarmed that we were doing a nationwide test.” Leading up to the test, FEMA launched an information campaign including an online FAQ and online videos in addition to providing information for the media to distribute to the public.

One of the main problems FEMA found with the system was that when audio was successfully rebroadcasted, it was often inaudible. 

“The audio quality throughout the test was sporadic and in some cased didn’t exist at all… A large part of the problem was some feedback that we got back from one of the primary entry point stations. Their encoder decoder had a malfunction and it actually started rebroadcasting the message back up that line that it received the message. That made the entire message everyone else received down line of that to be garbled,” Penn said. “We also had some points where we didn’t receive a message at all…We need to work to find out what the causes of that were.”

Broadcasters have up to 45 days to turn in their reports, so there is still a lot of information that hasn’t been analyzed yet.

Penn also expressed concerns for reaching members of the public with disabilities.

“The beauty of EAS is its simplicity and its biggest drawback is it simplicity,” Penn said. The scrolling text feature is meant to be a general alert that there is a problem and that viewers or listeners should tune into their local authorities to get information.

“But the audio is where the President actually conveys his message…We need to do a much better job at what we use as a scroll...An important focus is making the EAS fully accessible. We are working closely with the disability community to accomplish this goal."

Roberto Baldwin at Gizmodo wrote thatemergency alert systems are worthless without social networks[4] in a blog post advocating for adding a social media element to the emergency alert system.

“At 2pm EST most of us will be at work, without access to radio or TV. What we will be checking constantly? The Internet. Facebook, Twitter, Google. Which is why if this system is going to have any teeth, the FCC needs to implement a system that alerts the nation via their social networks,” he wrote. FEMA says it's working toward that goal.

In addition to expanding traditional alert pathways, FEMA is looking to expand its Integrated Public Alert and Warning System to social media in 2012. The goal is to “ensure at least 90 percent of U.S. residents are covered by at least one means of communication by the end of the fiscal year,” according to aprepared statement[5] written for the hearing.

FEMA is also developing the Commercial Mobile Alerting System (CMS) that would allow the public to receive geographically targeted messages alerting them of imminent threats, AMBER alerts, or emergency messages from the President on enabled devices--Lady Gaga free.

CMS is projected to be operational in New York City and Washington, D.C. by the end of 2011 and nationwide by April 2012. FEMA is currently working with cellular providers to conducts tests of the system.

photo byMichael Verdi/flickr