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March 6, 2012

First Nationwide Emergency Alert System Test Hits Glitches

Summary:

Problems were reported during the first-ever nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System, which was conducted on November 9, 2011, and which was designed to allow the president to address the American people during a national emergency.

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Summary
Problems were reported during the first-ever nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System, which was conducted on November 9, 2011, and which was designed to allow the president to address the American people during a national emergency.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which ordered the test, stressed it was designed to find flaws, and scoffed at reports the system had failed. By late November 9, a Federal Communications Commission official said about one-third of the test participants had filed preliminary reports, and those showed that 80 to 90 percent of the stations received the alert and were able to rebroadcast it, which was the major criteria of the test.

The official called the failure rate of more than 10 percent “not insignificant,” but said identifying problems “is why we have the test.”

Analysis
As we all should have anticipated, there were challenges with the test. It is certainly understandable there were technical and operational shortfalls with the first full-scale implementation of a national system designed to ensure the President of the United States (POTUS) is able to communicate with the entire country in the event of a national emergency or crisis.

The issues associated with the integration of public and private assets, along with the interoperability of proprietary hardware and software of independent cable providers' systems, are potentially overwhelming and would confound the most experienced team of technical subject matter experts and administrators.

Some unofficial reports indicate the Emergency Alert System test challenges included:

  • local cable systems' signal interference, distortion and compromise;
  • the failure of any Emergency Alert System signal being broadcast during the specified time of the test; and,
  • local programming interruption with non-Emergency Alert System broadcast information at the scheduled time of the test.

Based on the initial reports, the challenges are not insurmountable and will be extremely valuable in developing a baseline analysis of the areas that require emphasis to achieve an Emergency Alert System that is fully implementable. The test was an essential step towards the establishment of the objective Emergency Alert System.

The true measure of the test’s success will be determined by how the data and analysis are used in the process of developing a viable Emergency Alert System that meets the needs of the nation and its stakeholders.

Having experience in major emergency response efforts in the United States and abroad over the course of the past 25 years, I take issue with subject matter experts or pundits who suggest the improbability of a national disaster of such a magnitude the President or National Command Authority would have to address the entire nation at the same time.

The value of communication from the President to re-assure the American people and inspire greater confidence in the government during an incident of 9-11 proportions or a widespread communicable disease pandemic cannot be overstated.

My experience suggests that all disasters are local at their core. The initial response, which usually provides the first measure of relief for those affected by the disaster, is provided by emergency response resources available in the local community. Resources and support from governmental and non-governmental entities external to the local community that are provided to enhance and sustain the relief effort usually are provided in concert with local emergency management authorities and assets.

However, depending on the magnitude of the disaster, coupled with the pervasiveness of the media’s coverage, it is not unusual that a disaster’s impact will have a regional effect or engage the national consciousness. In those instances, such as it was with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, when the attention of the entire nation is captivated by the devastation and hardship a disaster imposes on a local community, the benefit of a system that enables the President of the United States to address the entire country is invaluable.

In summary, it was predictable there would be challenges with the Emergency Alert System test and that the system would have vulnerabilities.

It is imperative that we capitalize on the data obtained during the test and refine the system, and subsequently validate the effectiveness of the refinements/modifications with more evaluations at all levels of execution in the complex and sophisticated Emergency Alert System. Once we have achieved the objective Emergency Alert System that is viable and fully implementable, then we must place emphasis on training and maintenance of the system.

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