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Using the Emergency Alert System (EAS)

Why don't we hear about it being used by emergency managers?

by Eric Holdeman / November 12, 2020

My November International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Disaster Zone Column is no posted. Check it out below. 

Using the Emergency Alert System (EAS)w 

Hey everybody! There is a warning system called the Emergency Alert System (EAS) that can be used to issue warnings. Why aren’t more emergency managers using it?

Thirty years ago the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) was the only technological tool available to emergency managers for an electronic alerting of the population in their jurisdiction. It was replaced in 1997 by the Emergency Alert System (EAS). It still exists as a warning system and is now used extensively by the National Weather Service (NWS) to issue severe weather warnings. The last innovation added to EAS was Amber Alerts for missing children.

When EAS was fielded it had the promise of being able to turn on televisions and radios, even when they were not turned on, so that people could be alerted. That promise is not one that I’m aware of being fulfilled.

Fast forward to 2007 and a mass shooting incident at Virginia Tech led to an explosion of commercial mass notification systems. At one time there were over 100 of these commercial offerings available. Over time, these have consolidated. It appears to me that this commercial offering of services has become a preferred option for many emergency management organizations. The limitation that I’m aware of is that residents must “opt in” to receive these notifications. Thus, there might be thousands of subscribers to the system, but in reality it equates, in most cases, to a very small percentage of actual residents who have taken the step to be notified.

This leads us to the latest innovation in alerting and the national offering of Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). The system became operational in 2012. It allows for the issuing agency to specify a geographic area to receive the alert. A significant limitation is that there is a maximum of 90 characters available for formatting a message.

Which brings me to the current situation that I’ve observed. This is especially true for wildland fires. Emergency managers have taken heat in California for not using WEA more for alerting purposes. The excuse that I’ve heard is that the geographic area and character limitations make the system less than helpful in issuing an alert. Therefore, I keep reading about police and firefighters going door to door to alert people to evacuate.

I never hear anything about the EAS system being used to send an alert. Why not? Broadcasters do have to “voluntarily participate” in the system for state and local alerts. Only Presidential Alerts are mandatory for participation. Presidential Alerts have never been used (although I think the terrorist attacks of 9/11 would have been helpful) except for one national test conducted “for the first time” several years ago.

It is possible that there is a “fear factor” associated with sending an alert with EAS because any mistake in language and messaging will be prominent. I also think that there is a lack of training, expertise and confidence on the part of emergency managers that hinders their use of the system. That is my guess anyway.

Another benefit of the EAS system is that Weather Radios are linked with the EAS messages. The Weather Radio can sit quietly in a bedroom or office and only turn on when there is a warning issued, and they can be programmed for specific location warnings. For “less than the cost of a pair of shoes,” people who live in high-risk areas can get a warning — if one is issued.

It may feel good to hear about first responders going house to house risking their lives to alert people of a hazard, wildfire, dam break, levee failure, etc. But really — this is the 21st century and we should be able to do better than that when we have other tools available, one of them being EAS.

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by Eric E. Holdeman, Senior Fellow, Emergency Management MagazineHe blogs at www.disaster-zone.com. His podcast is at Disaster Zone.

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