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21st Century Emergency Alerting: Leveraging Multiple Technologies to Bring Alerts and Warnings to the Public

by: Lisa Fowlkes

May 26, 2010

When potential threats to life and property are imminent or disasters strike without warning as did the tornadoes in Oklahoma and Kansas that claimed innocent lives recently, we all know how critical it is for all of us to receive timely alerts and warnings, access to the latest information about an emergency situation and guidance from government officials on what we should do to protect ourselves and our families. Early and accurate public alerts are a key element in all of this and can make the difference between life and death.

On June 10, 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will co-host a workshop to address emergency alerting. This workshop – 21st Century Emergency Alerting – will bring together experts from Federal and state government agencies, the broadcast, cable, wireless and wireline industries, the disability community and others to discuss how we as a Nation can leverage multiple technologies to provide timely and accurate emergency alerts to the public. The workshop will also present an opportunity for the public to learn about the progress that has been made to enhance the Emergency Alert System (EAS), develop and deploy the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) and develop and deploy the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).

It has been and continues to be a high priority at the FCC to ensure that all Americans have the capability to receive timely and accurate alerts, warnings and critical information regarding disasters and other emergencies irrespective of what communications technologies they use. The public relies on a multitude of communications technologies, including broadband networks and the Internet, in almost every facet of their daily lives. A comprehensive alerting system that utilizes multiple communications technologies, including broadband and the Internet, would have the ability to reach more people, including those on the go, within a short period of time.

In the event of a tornado, for example, alerts could be sent to the father sitting with his family enjoying their favorite program on over-the-air broadcast, cable or satellite television, the woman sitting in traffic listening to music, news or sports on over-the-air broadcast or satellite radio, the grandparents playing with their grandchildren in a home that relies on landline or IP-based telephone service, the shopper walking in the mall, cell phone in hand, and the student conducting research on the Internet for a school paper. Such a system would ensure that the public is informed of an emergency and has the information it needs to protect itself. In short, providing emergency alerts over multiple communications technologies could ultimately help avert danger and save lives.

The FCC and FEMA have been working to bring the Nation closer to this goal. FEMA has been working to develop and deploy the IPAWS, a state of the art system that will, ultimately, allow Federal, state, tribal and local government agencies to send emergency alerts to the public over multiple technologies including broadcast, cable, satellite radio and television, wireless, wireline and the Internet.

The FCC continues to work with FEMA to develop IPAWS and to bring more communications technologies into the Nation's emergency alert arsenal. For example, the FCC has expanded the scope of the EAS to include digital broadcast radio and television, digital cable, satellite radio and television and wireline video programming providers. In addition, the Commission has established rules for the CMAS which will allow consumers to receive emergency alerts over their cell phones and other mobile devices.

The FCC and FEMA have also been busy working to enhance the reliability, resiliency and security of emergency alerts. For example, the FCC has adopted rules requiring EAS participants to be able to receive Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) –based EAS messages. FEMA is expected announce its adoption of CAP later this year. In addition, earlier this year, FEMA and the FCC, working with the Alaska Broadcasters Association and State of Alaska officials, conducted a generally successful top-to-bottom live Presidential EAS code test in Alaska. The results of that test are being used to develop plans for a first of its kind nationwide test of the EAS.

Also, the FCC's National Broadband Plan recommended, among other things, that the FCC begin an inquiry examining how to leverage broadband technologies, including the Internet, to deliver emergency alerts to the American public. The June 10th workshop will begin what we hope will be a thoughtful and engaging dialogue on this topic. We hope to engage all stakeholders on the legal, policy and technical issues regarding the development of a comprehensive broadband-based alerting system. For example, how can broadband technologies enhance the delivery of emergency alerts to the public? How can broadband technologies transform EAS and CMAS? How do we leverage the Internet (e.g., emails, websites and social network forums) to deliver emergency alerts?

We also hope that this workshop will provide an opportunity to share ideas for addressing some longstanding questions we continue to grapple with. For example, what changes are necessary to the FCC's EAS rules in a CAP-based world? How do we ensure that once IPAWS and CMAS are up and running, state, tribal and local governments can and will want to use them? For example, with respect to CMAS, I have often heard state and local government officials ask why they should use a system in which an alert targeted to a specific state or locality would have to travel through a Federally-operated aggregator in order to reach the people located in the impacted area. This is a reasonable question. We must do a better job of explaining CMAS, including its benefits, to our state, tribal and local government partners. How should we do that?

And, finally, we welcome ideas during the workshop and beyond on how to ensure that all Americans, including people with disabilities and those who do not speak English as a first language have access to timely and accurate emergency alerts, irrespective of what communications technologies they use. Thus far, most of the discussions I have heard have been in the context of EAS. But this isn't just an EAS issue. It is an issue that arose in the context of the FCC's CMAS rulemaking proceeding and it will come up again as we examine how to leverage broadband technologies to distribute emergency alerts. How should we address it? How have these issues been addressed at the state and/or local government level? Are there best practices or other consensus-based solutions that work?

The workshop will be open to the public; however, registration will be limited to the seating available. Those individuals who are interested in attending the forum may pre-register on-line. Those who pre-register will be asked to provide their name, title, organization affiliation, and contact information. Individuals may also contact Deandrea Wilson at Deandrea.Wilson@fcc.gov or 202-418-0703 regarding pre-registration. The deadline for pre-registration is Tuesday, June 8, 2010.

Audio/Video coverage of the meeting will be broadcast live with open captioning over the Internet from the FCC's web page at www.fcc.gov/live. The FCC's web cast is free to the public and does not require pre-registration. Reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities are available upon request. Please include a description of the accommodation you will need. Individuals making such requests must include their contact information should FCC staff need to contact them for more information. Requests should be made as early as possible. Please send an e-mail to fcc504@fcc.gov or call the Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau: 202-418-0530 (voice), 202-418-0432 (TTY).

For additional information about the meeting, please contact Susan McLean by email: Susan.McLean@fcc.gov or by phone: 202-418-7868.

You can serve an important role in all of this. I look forward to your comments as we move forward on these important public safety issues.

You can also get more information on this workshop and past workshops here.

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