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?