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Alert System Still Chugging, but Few Listen

The once-ubiquitous 'This is a test' message reaches an audience fragmented by other government warnings and new media.

May 18, 2003|Jube Shiver Jr. | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Emergency Alert System, an icon of national security since the Korean War, is hobbled by outdated technology and in danger of being tuned out by a public weary of an expanding array of warnings and advisories, government officials and outside experts say.

With Americans spending more time surfing the Internet and talking on cell phones, experts caution that fewer hear the "this is only a test" warning message aired monthly by television, radio and cable stations.

Meanwhile, a growing number of other government warnings -- from color-coded terrorism alerts to weather advisories and missing-children reports -- compete for public attention.

What's more, emerging media such as satellite radio and digital radio and TV aren't required to participate in the national alert network established by President Truman. The system was designed to enable the government to address citizens over broadcast stations during a national emergency.

"The emergency warning system is terribly out of date," said Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who has proposed legislation that would direct the Commerce Department to explore new alert systems. "Public warnings save lives, so we have to make sure effective warnings get to everyone in times of danger."

The shortcomings of the alert system were underscored during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. As the day unfolded, the White House did not request emergency radio and television time, leaving Americans to get their information from television and radio news coverage.

The White House did not return several calls seeking comment. But a high-ranking Federal Emergency Management Agency official, who requested anonymity, said President Bush elected to convey information through news conferences rather than commandeer the airwaves.

A 32-page draft report by the Partnership for Public Warning in McLean, Va., found that the system is vulnerable to hacking, is used largely for weather-related messages, does not incorporate potentially more effective new technology such as the Internet and cell phones and depends on communications equipment that, in some locales, is out of date.

"Our national ability to provide people at risk with useful information to reduce loss during all types of emergencies is severely limited," warned the group, which includes local emergency managers and the electronics companies that operate warning systems.

An outgrowth of a civil defense network established in 1951 by Truman, the original Emergency Broadcast System rose to prominence following the Cuban missile crisis, when fears of a nuclear attack prompted lawmakers to pass a measure to give the president a nationwide media platform during a national emergency.

Although no president has ever utilized the system, it remains well-known for its once-ubiquitous test message that intoned: "This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.... If this had been an actual emergency, the attention signal you just heard would have been followed by official news or instructions."

The system operates under rules administered by the Federal Communications Commission, which requires radio, television and cable systems to install -- and periodically test -- emergency alert equipment.

The system was later expanded to enable the National Weather Service and local civil defense authorities to warn of any threat to public health, safety and welfare. It was overhauled again in 1994, when the FCC renamed it the Emergency Alert System and began utilizing specific digital codes in the alert transmissions to control the equipment.

While safety experts and consumers say the system can quickly broadcast life-saving warnings, it has also resulted in an avalanche of alerts about everything from chemical spills to snow advisories. Amid the onslaught of alerts, some experts fear Americans will start tuning out government warnings altogether.

"We've put all our expectations on one system which was not designed to do everything," said Art Botterell, a Fairfield, Calif., consultant who helped develop California's Emergency Digital Information System, which allows residents to sign up to be notified of emergencies by e-mail or pager alerts. "The real problem we face is coordinating the use of a whole set of different warning systems so they work together," he said.

"You can't activate it too often or the public will become immune to when it is used," added Thomas Hendrickson, president of the Michigan Assn. of Chiefs of Police.

Amid the concern, Capitol Hill lawmakers, the FCC, the Department of Homeland Security and other branches of the federal government have begun looking into ways to make the system more useful, in part by incorporating new technology.

The FCC made the alerts less intrusive in 1994 after broadcasters complained the tests prompted viewers and listeners to switch stations, hurting their audience ratings.

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