Skip to content

PBS Pushes Next-Gen Emergency Alerts

​IF THE PUBLIC Broadcasting Service (PBS) and its partners have their way, Americans in the near future will have the ability to receive emergency alerts on smartphones, tablets, and other mobile digital devices when a natural disaster or terrorist attack strikes. Known as Mobile Digital Television (MDTV), the technology already proved a lifesaver in Japan after the country suffered massive devastation during an earthquake and tsunami last year.

Throughout the first quarter of this year, four PBS stations—WGBH Boston, KLVX Vegas, WBIQ Birmingham, and WAIQ Montgomery—have been carrying out a pilot project funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the mobile device manufacturer LG Electronics to test what it’s calling the Mobile Emergency Alert System, also known as Mobile EAS (MEAS).

“With the Mobile EAS service, we’ll be able to send everything from AMBER alert photos to detailed maps with escape routes, live video, and extensive information that viewers will find invaluable in a disaster,” said John McCoskey, PBS Chief Technology Officer, in a statement announcing the pilot programs.

The point of the project is to show how commercial and public broadcasters can broadcast rich-media emergency alerts—using video, audio, text, and graphics—over the air to consumers’ mobile digital devices when augmented by an MDTV receiver. Currently, almost no mobile digital devices in the United States have MDTV capability.

The pilot will also seek to determine how to best package rich messages so that they are user friendly during a disaster. “A good picture is worth a thousand words,” says John Lawson, executive director of the Mobile 500 Alliance, a voluntary association of television broadcasters interested in taking MDTV national. “A little bit of video might be worth ten thousand words.”

MDTV proponents in the United States point to Japan to prove the technology’s lifesaving power.

Since January 2007, Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, has offered earthquake and tsunami alerts to citizens over its mobile digital television receivers, known as One-Seg. This capability played a critical role in warning Japanese citizens of the massive tsunami triggered by the devastating 9.0 earthquake last March. “Many lives were saved by informing people of the tsunami alert through One-Seg,” the government of Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications wrote in the August issue of ITU News.

Dr. Keiichi Kubota, Director-General at NHK’s Science and Technology Research Laboratories, provided Security Management with one incident where two policemen on a commuter train noticed NHK’s tsunami alert on One-Seg. The policemen promptly gathered 40 passengers together and led them up a nearby hill before the rushing water struck the train, saving all of their lives.

Unlike Japan’s cellular providers, which experienced outages due to critical infrastructure damage and loss of power, One-Seg proved resilient, making it a model for PBS.

“The prime distinction between [cellular communications] and broadcast is that broadcasting serves everybody,” says Jim Kutzner, chief engineer at PBS. “You send out one broadcast, [everyone] can receive it. The carrier’s network, however, is a one-to-one connection times as many people who are trying to connect at that point.”

That means when an emergency happens, people begin calling loved ones, saturating the cell network and causing it to fail, says Kutzner, citing last summer’s East Coast earthquake in the United States as an example. “The carriers’ networks were completely swamped. You couldn’t make calls,” he says.

Kutzner says this doesn’t minimize the importance of cellular communications as a redundant technology in a crisis, but broadcast allows local, state, and federal authorities to quickly get their emergency alerts out to as many people as possible. “The upside [of cellular] is that [it] is two-way, but if you’re just simply trying to get information out, and you don’t have need or have time to manage a million responses, the broadcast system is the most efficient,” he says.

The technology’s resilience and communicative power, say its evangelists, make it a great candidate to become one component of the federal government’s next-generation emergency alert system, known as the Integrated Public Awareness and Warning System (IPAWS).

Initiated via executive order by President Bush in 2006, IPAWS will replace the antiquated Emergency Alert System, which gave (and for now, still gives) the President the ability to talk to the American people over the radio or television within 10 minutes.

IPAWS will modernize that system and integrate other communication media—cellular, online, radio, social media, and television—into a flexible platform that can accommodate new communications technologies as they’re introduced, like MDTV.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is the lead agency charged with IPAW implementation, less than 40 percent of the American population has access to radio or television during the workday, making it an increasingly unreliable method of delivering emergency alerts. The future will be creating one emergency alert and delivering it to all devices.

That’s why FEMA sees potential in MDTV as one component of IPAWS. “We are in talks with Mobile TV and look forward to establishing formal contacts with them,” Damon Penn, FEMA assistant administrator for national continuity programs, told Security Management. “Our goal is simple: to provide the ability for emergency alerting officials to send one message over more devices to more people for maximum safety of our entire community.”