Time for a pervasive emergency alert system

The Virginia Tech tragedy highlights the need for a warning system that cuts across all devices and systems

I’m writing this column on the day of the Virginia Tech national tragedy. Aside from the natural emotions from this overwhelming, random act of violence, this event struck even closer to home because one of my daughters was recently accepted into Virginia Tech, and she and a sister were planning a road trip to the campus. Our neighborhood is full of Virginia Tech flags and Hokielovers.

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Several student witnesses testified that they didn’t hear the initial gunshots and warnings because they were listening to their iPods or music players. It brought to mind a thought I’ve had for the last five years, and I’m sure I’m far from alone with the concern. 

We need a pervasive EWS (early warning system) that can override any and all multi-media sources.

Our internationally connected, multimedia, convergent world is quickly making our traditional EBS (early broadcast system) alerts less useful. Think about the sheer number of electronic devices that occupy our ears and eyes that aren’t connected to our traditional radio or television system: DVRs, iPods, MP3 players, media players, Internet radios, satellite radio, digital TV, and more. Many of these devices have absolutely no way of receiving an EBS alert. It will take an entire rethinking of our traditional emergency alert system, plus a coordinate open standard to be applied to all media devices.

The good news is that the United States is headed in that direction, albeit not quickly enough.

A little history first. The first national broadcast warning system was established by U.S. President Harry Truman in 1951 and was called Control of Electromagnetic Radiation (or CONELRAD). It was an invention of the cold war. It involved radio, both AM and FM, and television stations, and was solely used for national defense purposes. 

CONELRAD was replaced by the Emergency Broadcast System in 1963. Its use was expanded to the National Weather Service, FCC, national wire services, and for local and regional use. It was used in over 20,000 weather events until its retirement in 1996. (Remember your grandparent’s emergency weather radio?)

EBS was replaced by a significantly more comprehensive Emergency Alert System in 1994. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) joined the FCC, National Weather Service, and the President of the United States as overseers. EAS covers dozens of radio and television frequencies, including AM, FM, VHF, UHF, satellite radio and TV, digital radio, cable television, music sources, video broadcasters, and other media sources. Those sources are required to participate by the end of 2007.

My question is whether these EWS methods can override a TiVo, iPod, DVD player, Internet videocast, or other digital media device? I’m guessing not.

I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been watching a TiVo’d program as it shows an emergency weather broadcast. I’ve jumped up from the couch to check the skies, only to remember that my show is recorded. It’s even more embarrassing because it’s happened more than once. Ironically, if I’m watching a prerecorded show, the real emergencies won’t get through to me.

There are some partial solutions. The Emergency Email and Wireless Network Web site will send you e-mail or SMS messages. Weatherbug and Weather.com will send you weather warnings. Most of the major online news services will send you news alerts. AtHoc offers many enterprise-focused, network-based alert products; their product and customer list is impressive.

Still, none of these are complete solutions.

I want international, national, regional, and local emergency warning. I want perimeter-based emergency systems of the type that could warn a school campus about a deranged killer. I want a personal warning system: If a loved one of mine gets injured or needs my help, I want them to hit one button (a la “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”). I want that message to reach me no matter what I’m doing.

We need an international agreement among broadcasters, media sources, media devices, and information sources on a universal standard for emergency broadcasts. How long will it be before we have this service?  Why isn’t it already mandated?  How many people will be watching their DVR as a tornado or chlorine gas cloud bears down on their house? How many people have been killed already because we don’t have a universal, pervasive system? Every device sold without a mandated warning system is an alert device wasted. Would it be as simple as properly equipping cell phones? After all, so many of us have one.

Both of my daughters weathered the Virginia Tech massacre news as well as anyone could. I’m strangely comforted that next year, my daughter will be attending what will probably be one of the most secure universities in the United States. I wouldn't be surprised to see armed guards or police stationed near every building. Next time the warning system will work. Such is the guaranteed outcome from our shared national tragedy. As a civilization, we humans are terrible about being proactive, but we excel in our overreaction to past threats.

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