In November of 2011, the United States Department of Homeland Security and Federal Communications Commission conducted their first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS). The system is a media communications-based alerting system designed to transmit emergency alerts and warnings to the American public at the national, state and local levels, regarding weather threats, child abductions, and many other types of emergencies. The system requires broadcasters, cable television systems, wireless cable systems, satellite digital audio radio service (SDARS) providers, and direct broadcast satellite (DBS) providers to provide the communications capability to the President to address the American public during those instances.
In light of the many natural disasters that have struck the United States in recent years, systems like these are invaluable. However, these systems can only help us when they work properly. November’s test was designed to assess the reliability and effectiveness of the EAS as a public alert mechanism, and was the first top-down review of the entire national system.
The test, which began at 2 p.m. EST on Nov. 9, 2011, was intended to broadcast a 30-second test alert from the White House across every television and radio station in the nation.
For some listeners and viewers, the test went smoothly. For others, the test was a disaster. Some people never saw an alert, others said the audio was distorted and there were even claims that Lady Gaga’s song “Paparazzi” was playing instead of the correct audio. Many viewers and listeners received no alert at all, while others received the alert after a very substantial delay. In many regions, the alert also lasted much longer than the intended 30 seconds, confusing viewers and programmers alike.
What Went Wrong?
On Nov. 29, 2011, FEMA held a webinar to review the results of the EAS test, offering explanations for many of the difficulties experienced during the exercise. The agency explained that the double-audio experienced by most stations was caused by feedback into the Primary Entry Point (PEP) system. The failsafe system put in place to prevent this sort of error had unfortunately malfunctioned, but has since been repaired. Additionally, FEMA reported that the test message carried an incorrect time stamp, causing the message to be delayed by three minutes in a number of regions – this is a simple error that can easily be addressed in the future.
In addition to these errors, there were also a number of station and cable-system specific problems. Many of these will be addressed in the near future, as individual State EAS plans are reviewed and as broadcasters submit their follow-up reports, which are due at the end of the year.
Redefining Success and Failure
Instead of dismissing the EAS test as a failure, we should remember that it was just that – a test. Craig Fugate, FEMA administrator, correctly points out, “If you don’t test you can’t fix.” It is only by running a full-scale test of your emergency plans that you can identify where their weaknesses are – and fix them before they become a problem during a real crisis. A test is only a failure if its organizers don’t learn from it.
So what can we learn from the test? In terms of FEMA’s disaster communication capabilities, it’s too early to tell. Until the organization runs a second test of the system, we won’t be able to ascertain how well it is able to learn from its own mistakes. As I mentioned, many of the glitches were linked to the monitoring capabilities of various local broadcasters, and each kink will have to be worked out individually.
In terms of FEMA’s general strategy and our own preparedness efforts, however, we can learn quite a bit. One of the most valid criticisms of EAS is that it has a very limited reach. FEMA cannot rely solely on television and radio broadcasting in a day and age when many Americans are more likely to be online or on their phones than sitting at home in front of the TV. Additionally, the EAS should be viewed as a part of a greater preparedness effort – one in which international cooperation and regular testing play an important role. Lastly, we should recognize the importance of private preparedness as a critical supplement to all government response efforts.
Multi-Modality: Critical for 21st Century Communication
FEMA Assistant Administrator Damon Penn has said that this exercise was just the beginning of “much larger efforts to strengthen and upgrade our nation’s public alert and warning system.” As of now, the EAS only broadcasts via television and radio networks – FEMA still doesn’t have a way to reach all United States residents via text, phone, and internet updates. Developing a robust and multi-modal next-generation notification system will be the key to the agency’s success.
Truly next-generation emergency notification systems (ENS) can send messages to multiple contact points, including voice and text messages via as landlines, cell phones, pagers, and email to increase the likelihood that a person will receive an important alert at the time that they need it. They also rely on multiple data centers to address the very rare possibility of a server failure.
Although the PLAN system – which sends texts for free to smart phones via some providers – has been in place since May, it still has a very limited scope. FEMA is also working on an Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), which will integrate its existing notification systems into one modern network. It will be interesting to see how IPAWS will operate once it is fully unveiled next year.
Increasing International Cooperation
In the past few years, emergencies resulting from earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic ash clouds, and protests have all had a global impact, and have underscored the need for international cooperation in disaster planning, response, and recovery efforts. Disasters don’t always strike locally, and the most effective emergency preparedness efforts are those that emphasize cooperation, whether it is between international bodies or private and public organizations.
FEMA has already begun to strengthen its preparedness programs through international partnerships, and recently signed a cooperation agreement with the European Union. While refining the EAS and IPAWS systems is a critical task facing our nation, it is just as important that we strengthen our ties to sister agencies abroad, so that we are prepared not only for internal crises but also for crises that strike on a global scale.
Testing: The Key to Success
While it may be too early to draw conclusions about the specific strengths and weaknesses of the EAS system, we must certainly view test itself as an invaluable part of FEMA’s preparedness efforts. While we all wait for the results of this national test, businesses and other private organizations should focus on what they can do to improve their own disaster recovery plans. The most important part of any plan is testing – if you don’t know how your response mechanisms actually run, they may let you down when you need them the most.
If you rely on an emergency notification system to communicate with your staff members, students, or constituents, make sure that you conduct regular tests to ensure the everything is running smoothly. While you’re planning and testing your notification strategy, you should also think of how your stakeholders might respond to various alerts. Distribute critical information regarding your tests ahead of time, so that they’re not confused if something should go wrong. Educated and informed employees, citizens, and other stakeholders will react better in a crisis if they know that you are also prepared.
The Importance of Private Preparedness
Lastly, the difficulties experienced during the EAS test underscore the importance of private preparedness during wide-scale crises. Although government agencies and organizations do provide valuable services and support during emergencies, these services are limited and in many cases, still under development.
The bottom line is that no matter what state-run preparedness efforts are in place, it is still up to private companies and entities to protect their own personnel and property from harm and damage. Businesses can do so by preparing and continually revising comprehensive continuity plans, training employees for disaster scenarios, and investing their own emergency notification system – one that is robust, reliable, and ready-to-use at a moment’s notice.