Emergency Alert System Upgrade

The Department of Homeland Security, and FEMA, are launching a major upgradeand expansion of the familiar Emergency Alert System, which is now used mostly forsevere weather alerts. The upgrade will make it possible to see and hear EAS alertsin a lot more places. Houston Public Radio's Jim Bell explains.

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The need for this upgrade was painfully apparent on 9-11, because the Emergency Alert System was never activated during or after the terrorist attacks in the northeast. Last year, EAS was never activated when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, or afterwards when the levees broke and the city was flooded. That's when President Bush ordered an overhaul of EAS, with help from the Public Broadcasting System. PBS will use its national network to get Digital EAS alerts on all kinds of large scale emergencies out to the public, and, put them on more outlets. In a teleconference from Washington, FEMA Director David Paulison said it's a historic move forward.

"This is a major step from what we were using in the past with the old analog system, where we only had the capability of doing radio and television, to now into the 21st century, where we can tap into all of the technologies that we use every day. I think this is an outstanding step for this country to move ahead in making sure that not only the public has access to important information, but also our first responders and our state emergency managers."

Initially, Digital EAS will be used only during national emergencies. As funding becomes available, it'll be refined to allow alerts for all kinds of emergencies for specific areas, and, for individual members of the public. KUHT TV Manager John Hesse calls it "Personal EAS Alert Messaging".

"Computers, to cell phones, to PDA's, any device that a person has that they use in this new digital environment, they will be able to receive emergency messaging directly and simultaneously and instantly on that device. So if someone is at their kid's soccer match with their cell phone, something happens that needs to be alerted and warned about, it'll alert them on their cell phone to that issue or incident."

Chuck Wolf is chairman of the Houston Local Emergency Communications Committee, and he also thinks digitizing and expanding EAS makes sense, because fast access to information is so important in this day and age.

"Whether you're at work, you're on the road, you're at home, or even if you're asleep, you need to know if there's an emergency in your area that could threaten the health and safety of you and your family, and you need to know what protective actions you should be taking to be safe and secure."

FEMA says the first phase of Digital EAS will roll out later this year for national emergencies only. Other features, including localized EAS and personal EAS messaging, will be phased in over the next two to three years. Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.