ALARMED: Without Warning

Once a week, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sends an electronic alert to 36 AM radio stations from Maine to California. Here in New York, an encoder box at a so-called “primary entry point” at WABC picks up the signal and transmits it to another group of stations, which in turn send it to other stations, until the message spreads to radio, television and cable stations across the country. Observant listeners hear a 10-second squawking sound — proof that the station is plugged into the Emergency Broadcast System.

Established in 1963 to let the president take over the airwaves during a national emergency, the system is so apple pie that it’s surprising that no one really noticed, back in 1994, when it was renamed the Emergency Alert System. (Since then, stations no longer have to recite the script that we all knew as kids: “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test.”) Although never used by the president, the system is often used for local weather emergencies. It’s high-tech, efficient and a little old-fashioned all at once, which is why, after 9/11, Terra Lycos CTO Tim Wright started wondering why there was no such system online.

“I can’t prevent attacks, but I’m sure as hell that we have a very effective way to communicate to large numbers of people real-time on a one-to-one basis,” says Wright, whose company operates one of the country’s top five websites. So he helped put together a proposal that described how the technology for an “online emergency broadcast system” might work, and offered Terra Lycos’ “airwaves” to the government for distribution.

The resulting plan is part publicity stunt, part public service. Basically, government agencies like FEMA and the Centers for Disease Control would post relevant information, using XML, to a centralised Web server maintained by the federal government. In an emergency, portals like Terra Lycos, AOL and Yahoo would pull information from the server and post it on their home pages — a system not any different, really, from the hundreds of news feeds that build those sites’ content every day. The distribution network would prevent bandwidth bottlenecks, and Web users could get information straight from the government, while also drilling down to information as specific as evacuation routes.

Wright met with Homeland Security officials about the proposal last February. He waited for a response. And he’s still waiting.

“We were not able to do anything with their proposal, since at this time we do not have government procurement ability,” said a spokesperson for Homeland Security when I contacted them for a status report. Noting that the legislation turning the “Office” into a full-fledged “Department” is still pending, she repeated “we have no procurement ability” like a mantra when I asked, several times, if the office even considered such a system desirable or was looking at other similar proposals.

That response is no surprise to the community that has quietly sprung up to work on expanding the country’s alert system. When it comes to such proposals, Homeland Security is “sort of a black hole,” says Peter Ward, who for years has been trying to get the government to improve its alert system, which many believe would greatly improve public safety.

Ward, a retired public servant who spent his career working in public safety issues related to natural disasters, was part of a White House panel that in 2000 recommended the creation of a public/private partnership to work on coordinating efforts for disaster warnings. Now, he’s the chairperson of that group, the Partnership for Public Warning ).

PPW’s goal is to bring together federal, state and local agencies, businesses and organisations to develop an appropriate warning system, using half a century’s worth of social science research about how warnings are most effectively communicated and acted upon. (For instance, people with pets are less likely to evacuate their homes.)

It hasn’t been easy. “We have been trying very hard to work with [Homeland Security], and they don’t know what they’re doing—they’re not coordinated enough,” Ward says. “There is nobody in the federal government who says, ‘I am responsible for warning.’ I have briefed more than 80 senior leaders in government over the past nine months on warning issues, and while I find a lot of interest in their narrow confines, the big problem we’ve been having has been to get a single agency to take a leading role.”

The Federal Communications Commission, which is responsible for setting rules about the existing alert system, isn’t doing it: They refer calls about expanding the system to FEMA. FEMA, meanwhile, refers calls to PPW. And Homeland Security acknowledges none of these organisations — odd, since this is very the kind of coordination and public/private partnership that it was supposed to foster.

Not long ago in this column, when my colleague Scott Berinato compared integrating the proposed Department of Homeland Security to holding an oil tanker still while turning around the Earth, a reader responded that Homeland Security was less like an oil tanker and more like a thousand canoes. An online emergency alert system, it seems, is one of those thousand canoes — a potentially useful conveyance, set adrift as the Earth keeps turning. Whether anyone at Homeland Security will start paddling is not, as the script might say, only a test.

"Alarmed" is a biweekly column about security and privacy. Look for a new version every other Thursday.

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