Reaching Out

The All Alert system will replace the old method of distributing emergency warnings to the public.

by / April 27, 2005
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 the essence, you need to reach the majority of the population."

The EAS also has little redundancy built into it. All Alert will be highly redundant, so if one system goes down, there will be several available to back it up.

A Customizable Solution
All Alert is not just about the technology involved.

The federal team already successfully demonstrated the ability to receive, broadcast and rebroadcast simulated emergency messages from FEMA to participants from the broadcast, cable and wireless telecommunications industry, and emergency management officials.

Instead, the challenges behind All Alert revolve around bringing parties together to collaborate on building a backbone that will allow the public to determine, which alerts to receive and over which devices.

"The long-term plan is [that] citizens will be able to decide which types of warnings they want to receive," said Ward. "The ability to receive warnings will ultimately be built into all kinds of electronics, and when a warning applies to a person, it would be relayed to them. The technology is already there. This is all about building the backbone."

That's where the Amber Alert system can help, said Todd Sander, incoming director of the Amber Alert 911 Consortium, explaining that the idea is to build All Alert on the Amber Alert infrastructure.

"Amber Alert becomes important because it provides a platform for states and the federal government to work together," Sander said. "My first and most important job is getting the states that aren't part of the Amber Alert Consortium to join so we can get everyone focused on connecting to each other and the federal government. We can build the backbone from there."

The original concept behind the Amber Alert system was to bring the best technology to a system that didn't work very well.

"First we eliminated the time lag. Amber Alerts can be activated within 10 minutes of an initial report about a missing or abducted child," said Chris Warner, developer of the Amber Alert system and founder of Engaging and Empowering Citizenship. "We then geocoded the system so it knows who needs to get the alert and sends it only to whom the alert is relevant. It also uses prediction modeling to let other agencies know when they should be on the lookout and prepared to respond -- engaging people not only where the event happened, but also where it could potentially expand in the following hours."

Warner, Sander and NASCIO are now responding to the federal government's request to incorporate Amber Alert technology into All Alert. But while Amber Alert is one specific alert coming from one specific first responder group -- law enforcement -- All Alert will include multiple types of alerts from multiple first responder groups that are then passed to the public.

"The challenge is getting all the practitioners together and making sure we have a system that serves the needs of all the different interest groups," said NASCIO's Dixon. "But if we don't do this now, working together, the federal government and each state would eventually build their own separate systems. Trying to tie them all together at that point would probably take an act of divine intervention."

NASCIO's role is to help bring all 50 states and the federal team together to make a system that serves a wide variety of first responder groups and handles alerts from the very mundane to the very worst instances.

Dixon said private-sector players, including communications companies and broadcasters, have not been difficult to convince, because they see the All Alert system as a valuable service they can offer their customers.

"The early indications with Amber [Alert] is that private-sector companies almost clamor for the opportunity to do this," he said.

Working together, the federal team, along with the NASCIO team and the private-sector players, hope to have a pilot All Alert system ready to demonstrate by September 2005.

Changes Ahead
Once All Alert is up and running, those involved say it will let first responders do their jobs faster while relieving some of their burden.

"This will make first responders' jobs easier because they can get information out to the community fast. The more informed the community is, the more able they are to respond appropriately," said Sander. "A lot of the panic and danger that occur during an emergency stem from the confusion generated when the public doesn't know what's going on. This is the first thing I've seen in 15 years of working in the government technology arena that breaks down the barriers between jurisdictions and can really make a huge difference in people's lives."

For the public, the All Alert system means reducing some of that confusion so they can better respond to emergency situations.

"We can significantly improve our early warning systems in the United States in a short period of time if we can work together," said Ward. "Amber Alert proved the coordination can be done. Now we just need to cooperate and expand to reach more people using more outlets."
Justine Brown Contributing Writer