Tornadoes. Floods. Campus shooters. Kidnapped children. All of these are frequent and devastating phenomena in the United States. In light of this and of the pending due dates for new federal emergency-alert deployments, Congress wanted to know how the communications industry – including telcos, wireless providers and broadcasters – have kicked their roles up a notch when it comes to getting early warnings out into the community.
“The various disasters we have had in this country thus far this year have served to illustrate that timely communication is vital in an emergency and the availability of critical information can help individuals protect themselves from harm,” noted Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Communications, Response and Communications, at a recent hearing regarding federal alert and warning efforts. “Be it through television, radio, mobile devices, the Internet, social media, reverse 911 or warning sirens, emergency managers and emergency-response providers must have prompt and reliable means to provide information to their citizens.”
The congressman also pointed out that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will hold the first-ever national test of the emergency alert system in November as a follow-on to successful tests in Alaska in 2010 and earlier this year. The two agencies also are working to deploy a system to send geographically based alerts to cellphones. This system, known as the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) or the Personalized Localized Alerting Network (PLAN), is required to be deployed nationwide by April 2012. Early installations in New York City and in Washington, D.C., will cut over in November.
The wireless industry was first to step up to the plate to implement these mandates.
Testifying before the subcommittee, Christopher Guttman-McCabe, VP/Regulatory Affairs at CTIA – The Wireless Association, pointed out that carriers representing nearly 97 percent of wireless subscribers are providing wireless emergency alerts in compliance with CMAS and that “this figure is likely to increase as additional carriers elect to offer the alerts to their customers once the system is rolled out.”
However, he did offer a caveat: “There are two areas beyond our control that must be addressed if a seamless national deployment is to occur and be operational next year. First, FEMA must stand up its CMAS gateway, and be capable of receiving and distributing alerts to participating wireless carriers. Through our cooperative coordination with FEMA, we believe that is on track to occur in a timely manner.
He continued, “Second, substantial and ongoing care must be taken to ensure that potential alert originators at the state, county and local levels are properly trained about when and how alerts should be originated. This is crucial, because it is these alert originators who are responsible for disseminating critical information to the public in a timely manner. If consumers receive confusing or irrelevant alerts, then even the best alerting system will ultimately fail. We urge you to exercise your oversight authority to ensure that these objectives are achieved.”
Weighing in for the broadcasters (there were no cable companies represented at this hearing), Suzanne Goucher, president & CEO at the Maine Association of Broadcasters, pointed out “local television broadcasters reach 99 percent of the approximate 116 million households in the United States, while local radio reaches an audience of more than 243 million Americans on a weekly basis. The wide signal coverage of broadcasters ensures that anyone in a car, at home or even walking around with a mobile device can receive up-to-the-minute alerts when disaster strikes.”
In addition, she said, local stations offer hyper local weather alerts and information on multicast channels. TV stations are in the process of rolling out mobile DTV services that will include emergency information on smartphones, laptops and tablets.
Goucher added a recent real-life scenario showing TV is the first place consumers go to get more information about an emergency situation: Following tornadoes that struck in Alabama in late April, a survey showed that 71 percent of adults said they were warned about the storm by watching television, while 10 percent learned of the tornadoes via radio. Only 6 percent said they were warned of tornadoes via the Internet, smartphones or Twitter/Facebook.
“In addition to the ongoing, comprehensive coverage that broadcasters provide during emergencies, we are also the backbone of the Emergency Alert System (EAS),” she concluded. “EAS is a largely wireless network that connects over-the-air radio, television and cable television systems. The in-place infrastructure of EAS allows the prompt dissemination of alerts to the widest possible audience, or to target alerts to specific areas, as appropriate. EAS is intended for use during sudden, unpredictable or unforeseen events that pose an immediate threat to public health or safety, the nature of which precludes any advance notification or warning.”