Upgrading the Emergency Alert System

Andrew Froehlich, Network Engineer & IT Consultant | 11/22/2011 | 25 comments

Andrew Froehlich
This is a test. For the next sixty seconds, this station will conduct a test of the Emergency Alert System. This is only a test.

I remember hearing these messages on TV and radio broadcasts since I was a kid. The Emergency Alert System (EAS) has been around since the Cold War days and has seen several upgrades over the years. The latest upgrade was performed in 1997. The purpose of the newest EAS is twofold. First, it is used on a regional level to alert the public of weather-related emergencies such as tornadoes and flash floods. Second, and more importantly, the system can be used on a national level to alert all citizens to emergencies that affect the entire country.

Interestingly enough, the EAS has never been activated on a national level. Even more interesting is that it took our government almost 15 years to even test the thing. But finally the first national test took place on November 9, 2011, at 2:00 p.m. Eastern time.

So how did it turn out? Well, I would say it was shaky at best. There were several reports of areas that did not receive test messages on several radio, cable, and satellite networks. But failure was not a surprise to those running the nationwide test. According to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) blog:

    It was our opportunity to get a sense of what worked, what didn’t and additional improvements that need to be made to the system as we move forward. It’s only through comprehensively testing, analyzing, and improving these technologies that we can ensure the most effective and reliable emergency alert and warning systems available at a moment’s notice in a time of real national emergency.

It was at this point that I realized the real purpose of the test after all these years. The government wanted a failure, and it wanted it to be public knowledge. That way, citizens will begin to question why we don't have a more modern EAS.

For example, this Daily Caller article critical of the EAS states: "The current system only works on radio and television stations -- as if it were still 1997 and cell phones were rare."

Well-played, FEMA. Indeed, EAS relies purely on television and radio networks to broadcast its messages. And in all honesty, how many people actually watch TV or listen to the radio at 2:00 in the afternoon?

Instead, more and more of us are at our computers or out of the house with a mobile phone. The Federal government is already looking to expand EAS to these technologies; it simply wanted the public to demand it first.

So let's assume that we as American citizens want an EAS to communicate national emergency messages to us on our mobile phones and over the Internet. What's the best method to handle the transmissions? In my opinion, mobile phone alert transmissions are the easiest to tackle. Most Americans are familiar with text messages, and they are known to be highly reliable. But when it comes to Internet-based alerts, there are several different options being floated around. Here are a few of the more interesting broadcast methods.

One method would be to require that citizens "opt in" and join a mailing list or Twitter feed in order to receive emergency alerts. While this creates a less-intrusive method for sending alerts to only those who wish to receive them, my guess is that this option will not be seen as optimal.

A second option would be to enlist the assistance from major Website operators like Google and Facebook. When the EAS was activated, these Websites would be required to change their home pages to a Federal "alert page" for notification purposes. This is an interesting idea, but I fear that only employees wasting company time surfing the Internet would ever see the alerts. Those of us doing real work would still be in the dark!

Lastly, the government could mandate that US ISPs modify DNS entries to redirect all Website traffic to an EAS alert page. This is commonly referred to as DNS hijacking and is likely to be the most effective method -- albeit, very intrusive.

So what do you think? Should the EAS be expanded to mobile networks and the Internet? And if so, what's the best option?

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
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nasimson   Upgrading the Emergency Alert System   5/4/2012 8:18:33 AM
Upgrading the Emergency Alert System
Well, the world we live in now is far more well equipped technologically compared to the world in 1997. So, yes there are many better ways of getting these emergency messages through to all ends by simply using the present mobile networks. Everyone has a mobile phone with him or her. Even if there is no internet access, a simple service can be developed solely for the purpose of such emergency situations. 
Skr2011   Upgrading the Emergency Alert System   12/4/2011 4:59:29 AM
Re: Night Alerts
@ ee  you and I are on the same page my friend. If the EAS was in place on 9/11 why wasn't it used? What was the test that took place really about. Was it really lobbists for the cell phone companies in DC making noise or was ther another motive.....
eethtworkz   Upgrading the Emergency Alert System   12/1/2011 9:38:07 AM
Re: Night Alerts
Poe,

Why just Africa? Even in Asia(India and China are leading examples)-Mobile phones have caught in a very-very big way.

Not just that,the ability of some of the remotest corners of each country to stay in touch with each other through mobiles cannot and should not be underestimated.

These are people who had to previously walk 10-15 kms to the nearest phone booth,today they all have Mobile phone connections .

Regards

Ashish.
JPoe   Upgrading the Emergency Alert System   11/30/2011 5:42:19 PM
Re: Night Alerts
But the important question is-Will the system be cost-effective as well.

Well, let's keep in mind that one of the benefits of mass adoption of mobile phones and devices is that the infrastructure costs and footprint are low, relative to land lines and traditional telco solutions. I mean, the continent of Africa, for example, isn't exactly littered with phone poles, and yet, urban areas get pretty good phone coverage (from what I've read).



eethtworkz   Upgrading the Emergency Alert System   11/30/2011 2:11:41 PM
Re: Night Alerts
Andrew,

But the important question is-Will the system be cost-effective as well.

Or will it be another drain of taxpayer dollars which will never be used?

Ashish.
eethtworkz   Upgrading the Emergency Alert System   11/30/2011 2:09:20 PM
Re: Night Alerts
Umair,

Important question to ask is this-Are all those speakers connected on the same network?

Lets say you have a disaster/emergency is it possible to have a single/synchronized message on all the speakers at the same time?

If Yes,that system could serve as a good medium for distributing emergency information.

If Not,is the Govt willing to shell out cash to get it networked together???

Otherwise,its not much use having this infrastructure in place.

Ashish.
eethtworkz   Upgrading the Emergency Alert System   11/30/2011 2:00:21 PM
Re: Night Alerts
Skr,

I had the very same thoughts-I never even heard about the EAS at the time of 9/11 or even Katrina...

Is it possible that this is just another part of the whole govt conspiracy process to gain total and absolute control over us ordinary citizens???

I am sure many senior politicians have seen the Arab Spring and various protests across Europe and are very worried about something similar happening here in America(After all we got massive unemployment and a lot of frustrated souls here too).

Think about it,What does the Govt need to shut down all negative/competing opinion?? Re-directing the Internet and diverting all phone traffic seems like the most effective way-Does'nt it?

Food for thought,huh???

 
eethtworkz   Upgrading the Emergency Alert System   11/30/2011 1:20:19 PM
Re: Upgrading the EAS system
Poe,

I agree once again.

Regarding the issue of phone infrastructure getting easily saturated at emergency times,well we are just going to make it mandatory for all cellphone providers to have some backup antennas/resources in case of emergency.

AS for the possibilities of trouble with Giving Govts so much control(via DNS Hijacking of ISPs) in cases of emergency-It is unfortunately the best and most effective option here.

Unless you can come up with something novel.

What do you think?

Ashish.
eethtworkz   Upgrading the Emergency Alert System   11/30/2011 1:16:45 PM
Re: Re : Upgrading the Emergency Alert System
Poe,

I agree.

Twitter is not the best option out there.(Not too many people in the 30 plus age-group use it).

The way I look at it,DNS Hijacking of ISPs and mass-broadcasts on all cellphones make the most sense today.

Regards

Ashish.
JPoe   Upgrading the Emergency Alert System   11/29/2011 12:27:30 PM
Re: Re : Upgrading the Emergency Alert System
Sounds great, as long as you are actually using Twitter. I really dig Twitter, but find that it's only being used a tiny fraction of my day. So, I don't think that it would be an effective EAS tool, unless combined with other systems.
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