Everyone has heard emergency alert signals transmitted over television and radio, usually followed by, "This is only a test ..."

But what if it were a real emergency? People watching TV or listening to the radio would certainly be alerted. But what if the emergency happened in the middle of the night, when few people watch TV or tune in to the radio?

The original Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), developed in 1963 under the Kennedy administration, was replaced in 1994 by the Emergency Alert System (EAS), developed by the FCC. The EAS expanded the EBS to more outlets and allowed more detailed information to be distributed, but even the EAS relies extensively on television and radio to distribute warnings.

The FCC simply had no way to envision the huge technological changes occurring between then and now.

"Since the events of Sept. 11, there's been a realization that the emergency alert system, which was originally designed for a Cold War scenario, needs to be a lot more responsive to 21st century technology," said Reynold Hoover, director of the Office of National Security Coordination in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). "We need to be able to alert more people more of the time in the event of a crisis."

FEMA, which manages the EAS, is now teaming with other federal agencies as well as state technology leadership and the private sector to create the All Alert system. The new system will build on the Amber Alert infrastructure to more efficiently alert the public via a wide variety of communication devices, when emergencies occur.

Working Together

In 2004, an amendment to the 9/11 Intelligence Reform Bill mandated a one-year pilot to improve distribution of emergency warnings, including upgrading to satellite technology.

FEMA, the Association of Public Television Stations and the Department of Homeland Security's Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate are working with other federal departments and agencies, private communication companies and broadcasters to improve public alerts during times of crisis.

All Alert will utilize the digital capabilities of the nation's public television stations and the voluntary participation of cellular phone service providers; public and commercial radio; television broadcasters; satellite radio, cable and Internet providers; and equipment manufacturers.

"We've been exploring today's technologies to expand the system so everyone, no matter where they are or at what time -- day or night -- will be assured of receiving emergency information followed by an appropriate protective action," said Hoover.

The amendment also requires the federal government team to work with the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), which will help retool the Amber Alert child abduction system into a technology backbone for the new All Alert system.

The goal is to adapt the Amber Alert platform to a common messaging infrastructure that will be owned at the federal and state levels.

"When an alert goes out to the public, it will be very easy for anyone to pick up the message via a variety of communication tools," said Chris Dixon, issues coordinator with NASCIO. "We want to keep it totally open, so as communication channels evolve and the methods with which people get information change, our message platform will remain a steady fixture."

All Alert will greatly expand the EAS, which is restricted in how much information it can provide and its ability to supply follow-up instructions, such as where people should seek shelter.

"Today people tend to call 911 to find out more, and they end up tying up that system," said Peter Ward, expert consultant to NASCIO on public warning. "With EAS, if you needed to reach people at night, you would reach less than 3 percent of them. Even during daytime under ideal circumstances, you would likely only reach 30 percent. When time is of

Justine Brown  |  Contributing Writer