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We all recognize the tests of the Emergency Alert System, that familiar screech that interrupts local television and radio broadcasts a few times a month as required by the FCC. This November, the first ever nationwide test will be triggered on every radio, television, cable, and satellite station across the country simultaneously. The Emergency Alert System allows the President to address the American public in the event of a national emergency. We explore how the Emergency Alert System works, the surprising ways it’s used now, and what you’re likely to see and hear on November 9th.
- Bryan Fisher Chief of Operations, Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
- Kelly Williams Sr. Director, Engineering & Technology Policy, NAB Science & Technology
- Gregory Cooke Associate Chief, Policy Division, Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau, Federal Communications Commission
- Ed Czarnecki Senior Director, Strategy, Development and Regulatory Affairs, Monroe Electronics
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5, at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. We all know that familiar screech followed by the announcement that this is only a test, but few people know the emergency alert system as much more than an annoying interruption of their television show or radio program.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMost people don't realize that the flashflood and tornado warnings we get -- and we got a lot of them this year -- come across the Emergency Alert System. We'll all be learning more about it in the coming weeks. That's because the first ever nationwide test of the system will happen on Nov. 9. The system is designed to allow the president to address the nation in case of a national emergency.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIf all goes as planned, every television, satellite and radio station will carry the message simultaneously. But even as the old system is being tested, a new alert protocol is being put into place that integrates satellites, cellular and other networks. Joining us to discuss all of this is Ed Czarnecki. He is the senior director for strategy, development and regulatory affairs at Monroe Electronics. Ed Czarnecki, thank you for joining us.
MR. ED CZARNECKIGood afternoon.
NNAMDII should mention that Monroe Electronics provides advanced emergency alert equipment for television, radio and cable television. It's based in Upstate New York. And Ed Czarnecki represents the company's Washington, D.C., office. Is that correct?
NNAMDIAlso with us is Gregory Cooke. He is the associate chief in the policy division with the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission, FCC. Gregory Cooke, thank you for joining us.
MR. GREGORY COOKEWell, thank you very much for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Kelly Williams. He is the senior director for engineering and technology policy at the National Association of Broadcasters, NAB. Kelly, good to see you again.
MR. KELLY WILLIAMSGreat to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou can join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850. In what situations do you think the national Emergency Alert System should be used? 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Greg, so what circumstances would trigger a national alert?
COOKEWell, that, I think, Kojo, would -- has yet to be determined. As you know and as your listeners may know, the national system has never been triggered. The system certainly has been triggered for weather alerts, Amber Alerts and other local emergencies. But the kind of national emergency, the kind of event that would require that the entire United States be notified simultaneously is a pretty extreme and fairly desperate event that we hope never occurs.
NNAMDIWell, let's go back 10 years to 9/11. Was the Emergency Alert System triggered?
COOKENo, it was not. And, at the time, certainly, the coverage that was available from the news broadcasts and the ability of the president to get on the news broadcast and local news broadcast to operate had not been impaired. And so, certainly, the best information was able to be delivered over that media. Also, as -- you know, as terrible an event as 9/11 was, it was, for the purposes of the emergency response, essentially local.
COOKEAnd so, therefore, while everybody around the country needed be apprised of the event, emergency response of the kind that would necessitate a national alert was really not required. And one thing to remember is that this system, should it be triggered, is strictly a voice system, the one that we're testing on Nov. 9. And while it would overtake all of the broadcast and cable that's out there, would only deliver an open audio channel from the White House.
COOKEAnd so, therefore, only under the most extreme circumstances, would we anticipate it would ever be used.
NNAMDISo what circumstances would trigger a national alert?
COOKEWell, take a look at the beginnings of the system. I mean, this system has been around in one form or another since the Truman era and initiated with CONELRAD, which was designed to limit the amount of broadcasting available to make sure that enemy missiles were not able to target themselves based on radio frequencies. And this, by extension, allowed the president to have a channel to speak to the American public.
COOKEAnd then this was developed then through the '60s with the Emergency Broadcast System and then evolved into what's essentially a fairly automatic quasi-digital system with the Emergency Alert System that, nonetheless, anticipated that this was a very important event, should it occur. But again, it would be a national event. I would say, you know, nuclear war, you know, impending, you know, comets, I mean, something really quite extreme.
NNAMDIEd, anything you'd like to add about the history of the system?
CZARNECKIWell, I think, in addition to the national usage or to the non-usage of the system, it's important to remember that much of the Emergency Alert System has been used either for weather alerts. Probably 90 percent of all alerts have been weather-based coming from National Weather Service. The remaining 10 percent, more or less, have come from state, local and municipal officials.
CZARNECKIAmber Alerts, evacuation, shelter in place, those types of civil emergency notices are also a capability that local authorities have piggybacked on.
NNAMDIKelly, what's the system mainly used for these days?
WILLIAMSMostly weather, local emergencies, Amber Alerts. It's really dependent upon a partnership right now between local broadcasters and local emergency managers. Here in the D.C. area, we have a really good system. It works well. People see crawls all the time on their TV station. They hear interrupted program on radio for flood alerts. And, as you mentioned, in the open, we've seen a lot of those in the last couple of weeks, more than usual.
WILLIAMSSo it works real well here. In Tornado Alley, it's a critical system, you know, warning people of impending tornadoes. And we've seen a few of those here, but -- and also when you go into the Southeast, hurricanes. Florida -- state of Florida has a great system that's grown out of getting pounded year after year with hurricanes. So that's predominantly how it's used now. Amber --adding -- I can't say the word -- kidnapped children...
NNAMDIAbducted, I guess...
WILLIAMS...abducted children, is fairly new. Maybe 10 years, I guess, 10 years, Amber Alerts have been around.
WILLIAMSThose will typically come from a law enforcement agency. It's recovered a number of children who have been abducted -- I don't know why I can't say that word -- in various situations. We see these also on signs, you know, road signs -- looking for a, you know, gray Chevy with license plate. So this is all part of this one system, all part of public alerting. It's something that we're going to grow into. We'll talk about it a little bit later on in the program.
COOKEI think one thing to remember is the way the system is designed -- and we can get into this a little bit since it is Tech Tuesday...
COOKE...is that it really is designed like a hierarchical pyramid, where -- although the White House can initiate the system and communicate with everybody, the way the system is built is that various levels of government can communicate with their constituents using the identical equipment.
COOKESo, for example, you can have a weather alert that could come across that would just be very local. It would say that there's a tornado going down the I-70 corridor from Frederick to Ellicott City as well as -- Kelly pointed out the Amber Alerts. These could be used -- and that could be very, very local. The same equipment could be used on a more regional basis, on and on and on, the way the system cascades, really, till the whole country's triggered.
COOKEI think the best analogy is almost like dominoes. If you see the world domino drop where one person flicks a domino, and that flicks two which flicks three which flicks five, that's essentially what happens here. One flicks 30, which flicks 500, which then flicks 30,000, and it's those links is what we're going to be testing on Nov. 9.
NNAMDIWell, we wanted to play a sample of the tone and the announcement for our listeners, Greg. But, in fact, that's a no-no. Why?
COOKEOh, that's a very definite no-no.
NNAMDIWhy is that?
COOKEWell, first and most importantly, because the rules say it's a no-no. But the reason that the rules do say it's a no-no is because when you hear the tones and when you hear the attention signal...
NNAMDIYou mean, it's not just an irritating noise?
COOKEI think people really recognize it. And they really know that something's up and that maybe it's a test, but, you know, you've been around here, we've all been around here often enough to get the tornado and the thunderstorm warnings and know that something serious can occur.
NNAMDIIn addition to which, though, it's not just an irritating noise. It's my understanding that -- and you can go over this, Ed. It's carrying information.
CZARNECKIYeah, exactly right. These annoying tones are actually -- if you remember America Online or any of the dial-up services, they're like modem tones. And those tones carry packets of information that you can construct the alerts you see crawling across your television or other systems that Kelly is talking about. An Amber Alert has been issued for the District of Columbia at this effective time, ending at that effective time.
CZARNECKIAnd if somebody was to potentially relay those tones without authorization, other stations listening to -- monitoring that radio station could relay that alert throughout an entire urban area.
WILLIAMSYeah, and that's really the problem, is, you know, there's somebody out there monitoring this station now. They're schools that have EAS devices. You play those tones. They're going to go off. They don't know it's part of your show. There have been a couple instances -- there was an ad for a movie out about a big disaster that will maybe happen next year, that, in the original spot, they had EAS tones.
WILLIAMSAnd TV, you know, unknowingly -- you know, the ads ran.
NNAMDIWell, it's just an ad, right.
WILLIAMSIt's just an ad, but it set off a certain number of EAS decoders that are in broadcast stations went off. The machine doesn't know the difference. So wisely, actually, we can thank of a man named Frank Lucia, who actually thought of it. He said, this is not a good idea to just have people randomly generating these tones.
WILLIAMSSo that's why it's illegal.
NNAMDIAnd that's why you won't be hearing a sample of the tone during the course of this broadcast hour. Assumption is that you have, however, heard it before. If you'd like to join the conversation, you can simply go to #TechTuesday, or you can go -- send us email to email@example.com. Or you can call us, 800-433-8850. Joining us now by telephone is Bryan Fisher.
NNAMDIHe is the chief of operation at the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Alaska was asked to test the system ahead of the rest of the country. And Bryan is not yet with us. But when he joins us, he will tell you about how that worked. Let's go to the telephones and talk with John in Falls Church, Va. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNGood morning. I'm glad to be on your show. I'd like to know what, if any, familiarity the guests have for the use of that system during 9/11. But, more importantly, I'd like to mention that most municipalities don't really deal with the local emergencies that might happen in neighborhoods. For example, my neighborhood is susceptible to flooding.
JOHNAnd it's up to the neighborhood to develop plans for their own response system that probably would not be able to use the alert system. There may be a mechanism whereby neighborhoods could, in a case of emergency, call a local TV station or something like that. But I don't know if that's the proper way to activate such a system that might alert their neighbors of the problem.
NNAMDIHere's Greg Cooke.
COOKEJohn, you've really put your finger on a fairly significant issue, which is that outside of the weather alerts which are generated by the National Weather Service and the Amber Alerts which are generated by a law enforcement agency.
JOHNI might mention Sky Watch.
COOKEThe -- thank you. The use of the EAS by a local emergency personnel for non-weather related emergencies is something that we've been looking very closely at because it's a really significant resource that is not being used. And that's one of the reasons why we are running this test because it allows us to enhance the partnership we have with the local government to get them to use this system in emergencies because it's very effective.
COOKEI mean, if you had an event, for example, happening in Falls Church, and your local sheriff or local police were able to contact the local radio station or an area radio station. And the two big ones around here that would be monitored by everybody else would be WTOP and WMAL. They would be able to -- they have the equipment in their facilities to actually generate an alert that would be extremely local.
COOKEAnd I think that this would go hand-in-glove with the kind of short message service-based alerts that Arlington Alert and other local areas do that really can keep local law enforcement plugged in to the emergency situation.
NNAMDIJohn, thank you very much for your call. And you may have answered Mike in Alexandria, Va.'s question, Greg. But, Mike, your turn.
MIKEThanks for taking my call. Yeah, I was wondering what the connection is between the alert system and WTOP because, a lot of times, when it comes on the radio -- I've got a fairly keen radio ear, and I can pick out certain personalities that I can recognize. And they all have WTOP voices. Now, what is that connection?
NNAMDIHere's Kelly Williams.
WILLIAMSYeah, that's right. WTOP is what's called the local primary here. They are the station that, once they get an alert from National Weather Service or some other source, they are the originator of alerts locally to other broadcast stations. They do a phenomenal job. They do a thing which, you know, they do broadcasters proud and local radio proud.
WILLIAMSAnd that -- they take that copy of that alert -- you know, technology allows us now to have text to speech, synthesizers and so forth. You know, they get a human being. They go ahead, and they read those alerts. You know, they do a -- just a phenomenal job, and that's why you will -- even if you're listening to another radio station, you may hear a voice you know as a TOP voice. I guess it depends on who's on -- who's working that...
NNAMDIOkay. Stop now. Enough of this praise of WTOP, will you?
WILLIAMSOkay. And, you know, and AMU does a great job as well. I'm sure, given the opportunity, they'd put it on the air live. But that's one of the things we bought. I think, we as broadcasters, not to toot broadcaster's horn, but -- well, I got the mic for now.
WILLIAMSYou know, and the previous caller mentioned this thing about locally making a call to the station. You know, there is the EAS System, but there is also, I think, something that local broadcasters bring to the mix, which is a coverage of new or events, you know, going out, getting the event. It's not a particular -- necessarily an official government-initiated alert.
WILLIAMSBut, you know, I think it is useful to let your local stations know what's going on, and they can get information out to their viewers and their listeners.
CZARNECKII think one of the things to bear in mind is that the Emergency Alert System is not for every alert, every contingency emergency. A local road -- I have similar problems in my part of Virginia, local Route 7 being flooded every time it trickles. That's not something that would necessarily get on EAS alert, but it's certainly something that local news would cover.
CZARNECKIAnd that's certainly something that a text messaging or email or other communication system that a local government may use. And that may be a segue into what's happening next with the federal government and local governments.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break before we get to that segue. If you would like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think the Emergency Alert System is an annoyance, an important public service or maybe both? 800-433-8850. You can also join the conversation at #TechTuesday, or by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's a Tech Tuesday conversation on the Emergency Alert System. We're talking with Kelly Williams. He's the senior director for engineering and technology policy at the National Association of Broadcasters, NAB. Ed Czarnecki is the senior director for strategy, development and regulatory affairs with Monroe Electronics.
NNAMDIAnd Gregory Cooke is the associate chief in the policy division with the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau at the FCC. Gregory Cooke, we mentioned Nov. 9 is the day on which the national test will be conducted, all radio, television and broadcast stations simultaneously. Exactly what's going to happen and what time?
COOKEWell, that'll happen at 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. At that time -- and it'll be lasting for about three minutes. You'll hear the tones. If you're listening to the radio, you will then hear an audio that will indicate that this is a national test. If you're watching television, you will see a crawl across the bottom of your screen that indicates that it is an emergency.
COOKEAnd this is a fairly important distinction because, in order for us to really test the system, we need to test the system live. And so, therefore, the codes -- as Ed mentioned earlier, there's a lot of data in these codes. And among that data is sort of the who, what, when, where of the alert.
COOKEAnd so a crawl will be generated across your screen that will indicate that this is an emergency action notification generated by, you know, a particular radio station in your area, and that it will be lasting from two o'clock until about 2:10 or however long that day. We are committed to making this an accessible event for all the American public, and so, therefore, are working with all of our video providers to provide some other level of video enhancement that will clearly indicate that this is a test.
COOKEAnd I think Bryan, when he gets on, can talk about how they did that up in Alaska. And this will occur with all radio, all broadcast television, all cable television and all direct-broadcast satellite television.
NNAMDIAnd as we mentioned earlier, Alaska was asked to test the system ahead of the rest of the country. And joining us now is Bryan Fisher. He is the chief of operations at the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. He joins us by telephone from Anchorage, Alaska. Bryan Fisher, thank you for joining us.
MR. BRYAN FISHERThank you. Good morning from a balmy 23 degrees here in Alaska.
NNAMDIWell, you can keep that. Bryan, your agency worked on a test of the national test, if you will. Why did the FCC and FEMA choose Alaska to roll out the national test?
FISHERThank you. In the summer of 2010, FEMA and the FCC came to our state and our broadcaster's association and -- with the idea of running a sandbox test, if you will, of this EAN code that we're going to be testing nationwide on Nov. 9 for a couple of reasons. We do live code testing for tsunami warnings, our highest threat disaster in Alaska.
FISHERWe have been doing it for four or five years. And we got the system down on how to notify the public in advance of the test. So they weren't confused, and there was no panic or unnecessary evacuations. The other reason they came to us -- we're a pretty good lab of the rest of the country, if you will. We have every piece of EAS equipment that exists. We're very geographically challenged, and our communications infrastructure is fairly small.
FISHERAnd they were very frank with us. If they came up to do the test here and something didn't go right, it wasn't going to bleed over into any other states because we're so far removed from the contiguous 48 states. So that's why we did the two tests in January of 2010 and then again in 2011.
NNAMDIHow did they go, from a technical standpoint?
FISHERTechnically, I think they were flawless. We found some issues with the overall design of the EAS system. Some of our stations had equipment issues that had to be tweaked and that were discovered through the actual use of the live code.
FISHERAnd that's one of the reasons that they came back to Alaska prior to rolling this out nationwide, was to -- we came up with a big mitigation plan on how to fix the problems we found in 2010, spent the next year going through that, working with our broadcasters and cable systems and were able to mitigate those. And we reran the test to make sure that the fixes that were developed by FEMA and the FCC worked.
NNAMDIAnd so were you able to reach all stations on the second try?
FISHERNot all stations. We have -- we had a much higher percentage of success in 2011, but we have routine issues with the system, like maintenance. The boxes that handle the Emergency Alert System, you know, at times they break and have to go in for repairs. So there were a few stations that didn't receive the test the second time or the first time. But that's normal in the system.
NNAMDIWas there anything different about this test compared to the regular monthly test that all of us broadcasters conduct?
FISHERThe big difference is the length of time that it's going to be broadcast for. They tested it here both years in Alaska. A typical weather alert or a local emergency that would be sent by the state or local folks is limited to only two minutes. And then the boxes automatically reset, and you go back to normal programming. With this particular code, there is no time limit.
FISHERSo we tested that for approximately three minutes both times to see what would happen with all of this equipment, and it worked as designed.
NNAMDII understand television broadcasts, in particular, were a challenge. Why?
FISHERI think Greg or Ed might have just mentioned that a little bit ago. The number one problem we have using a live code, that crawl that goes across the screen, those modem tones that you hear send the who, what, where, when and why. And it's very limited. So there is no way for us to use a live code and inject into that crawl that's automatically generated that it's only a test.
FISHERSo, for example, the general public may be in a gym, running on a treadmill with the TVs muted, and they could see this crawl come across the screen, and if it's muted or we have a hearing -- the hearing-impaired community, they may not actually hear the audio that says it's only a test. So...
NNAMDISo was there any response from the public indicating any panic as a result of that?
FISHERNo. I think that's my -- it's been my key message for this last year leading up to the test. We do a really successful job in Alaska, and it's primarily thanks to our broadcaster's association in getting the word out in advance of the test. So big public service announcement campaigns, press releases, live (unintelligible)...
NNAMDIWell, does a part of that -- do you think the part of your public service campaign that seemed to be pretty effective can work in this part of the country? After all, we're not experiencing 23 degrees right now, and your public service campaign -- tell us about a chill.
FISHERWell, we had a -- our campaign for the tests that we do, we call it stop and chill, it's just a drill. So we had a very nice screen that was -- slides that were developed for the television, not only for our public service announcements, but for the -- for use during the actual test where our television broadcast stations could put a slide up behind that crawl that very, very clearly visually stated that it was only a test.
FISHERI think that's another key point for this nationwide test. Every state, every county is different. And it's incumbent on us at the state and local level to tailor the message prior to the test for your markets.
NNAMDIYeah, because the local outreach, I guess, is crucial. What's the biggest lesson that Alaska took from all of this, Bryan?
FISHERI think the biggest question was don't rely -- don't sit back and wait for the federal government, for FEMA or the FCC to do this public notification in advance of the test. They're not the ones that are going to receive the telephone calls. It's our 911 centers that will.
FISHERSo it's incumbent on the, you know, county emergency managers and 911 centers and state broadcasters associations and emergency management organizations to get the word out to your audience. You know the people who live in your state, in your county. It's important that you work with them to make sure that nobody does panic when the test goes on Nov. 9.
NNAMDIBryan, thank you so much for joining us.
FISHERYou're welcome. Thank you.
NNAMDIBryan Fisher is the chief of operations at the Alaska division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. You heard the man, Kelly Williams. Outreach to the public is crucial to the whole process, is it not?
WILLIAMSIt is. And, in fact, the FCC, FEMA, who is FCC's partner, local broadcaster associations -- for people who don't know what that is, they're the coalition of broadcasters in every state -- have a number of things that are going on. First, in the coming weeks leading up to the test, broadcasters will start running PSAs, public service announcements, about the test.
WILLIAMSThe gentleman sitting to my right and his dulcet tone happens to have voiced the radio ones.
NNAMDIAs soon as I heard him speak, I said, this guy's been in radio.
WILLIAMSYeah, that guy is (unintelligible) SAG member.
NNAMDIThat's what I said.
WILLIAMSAnyway -- but, you know, if you -- station wants to voice their own, it's fine. There are some scripts that actually Greg's division has developed and FEMA has developed. You want to do some PSAs and run those to make the public aware. There are a few that have been produced by the FCC for television. Those will be coming out shortly. NAB will distributing those to stations.
WILLIAMSThat's one of the things we do for our members. NAB's members are radio and television stations. And we'll have those up in probably the next week or so. Actually, probably this week, we'll have those up. And so I'm not sure how far ahead you guys want us to start running them. But I think about a week or two ahead, they'll start getting the PSAs out there.
WILLIAMSThe other thing is, through the state broadcasters association -- and FEMA has been working this angle as well -- reaching out to the 911 call centers, the emergency managers and all that to let people know there's a test. People may hear this or see the crawl, not hear the audio, any of that kind of thing, and there may be some calls, so they're not overwhelmed and think there's some sort of issue.
NNAMDISpeaking of calls, if you have already called this broadcast, stay on the line. We will get to your call. We still have a couple of line opens, 800-433-8850. Would you like to see an expanded Emergency Alert System, for example, one that would send text messages to your phone? 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Or you can simply go to #TechTuesday and send us a tweet, or email us to email@example.com. I interrupted you, Kelly.
WILLIAMSThat's okay. The slide that -- or the slate or the background that TV stations will put up is very important, make sure that hearing-impaired people who can't hear the audio that says, it's a test. NAB has been distributing or will be, we believe, sent some out. We've distributed some. Greg and I actually have worked together on putting some sample text together. Again, just -- let's make sure everybody knows that this is test.
WILLIAMSAnd one of the things that our friend in Alaska said is true. You know, we'll send text, and it's suggested text. And local broadcasters and, I presume, cable casters will tailor those messages for what's best in their community.
NNAMDIGreg, anything you like to add to that, and then Ed?
COOKEJust one thing to remember about this is that this is a diagnostic test. And I think, as Bryan very correctly pointed one, even when you've done all the prep in the world and done everything you can to mitigate problems, problems will occur. The way this system is designed is that even if we only get to that first level of these primary entry point stations, we still reach 90 percent of the American public.
COOKESo when this test is triggered, there'll be systems that worked yesterday that aren't going to work today because of weather, because of signal attenuation, any number of technical reasons. There are people out there who still have analog TVs and using a digital set top box. We're concerned that the system, that the test is going to be broadcast directly through his TV with a different aspect ratio, for example.
COOKESo we're going to be looking very closely at all of the elements of the test. And so the outreach, just as much as Kelly has talked about how important it is to make sure you've got some kind of visual, we, in concert with FEMA and with our other partners in this, are doing significant outreach to all of the disability organizations, state and local government, national council of cities, national council of mayors, national council of counties to just get the knowledge of this test out as much as possible.
COOKEAnd so people know, going in the door, that what's going to happens at 2 o'clock on Nov. 9 is a test.
NNAMDIBut inquiring minds want to know. Are you going to use chill, it's just a drill?
COOKEThat would be kind of charming.
COOKEI think we would -- I think Alaska could do that, and that was fine. We've made suggested language. We've seen slides that, for instance, the State of Nevada has put together that, you know, perhaps chill wouldn't be exactly the right word for them to use. But this is something that the local broadcast communities and the state broadcasters can do on their own.
COOKEWe've got some suggested, you know, standard default, fairly boring-looking graphics that they can use. But if they want to do something more interesting, certainly, they're welcome to do so.
CZARNECKII just wanted to inject a couple of thoughts about cable TV 'cause a large part of the viewing audience in the D.C. area will be -- the greater D.C. area will be looking at the alert on cable television. And I think it's fair to say your cable systems will be doing things you've never seen it do before. I love working with television stations. So we provided our gear to many television stations in this area, and, frankly, implementing EAS into television and radio is easy.
CZARNECKIImplementing EAS into cable is a whole different kettle of fish. There's a ton of equipment downstream of the EAS device that makes life a little interesting. So come Nov. 9, what will -- you'll likely see, our gear is in virtually every cable operator in the D.C. area. What you'll see is the information exporter from our device, interfaced with the cable system. The cable system will then force tune, in most cases, to a channel.
CZARNECKISo you may be watching anything from HBO to, you know, any local television station. It'll force tune to a, you know, a slate like you've seen with the EAS and cable before with the text, you know, primary entry point system has initiated Emergency Action Notification, effective 2 p.m., lasting until Emergency Notification Action issued.
NNAMDIAllow Justin in Odenton, Md., to complicate your life just a little bit more. He writes by email, "Something I have been curious about for a while now. Close to a year ago, I got rid of my cable and now watch Netflix streaming exclusively through my Xbox 360. Is there any chance of the emergency system coming to streaming media? Or am I simply out of the loop now?"
CZARNECKII don't think you're out of the loop. That's -- more to come on that. But for the purpose of the national test, whether you're on an iPod or Netflix, you're going to be in an information silo. You're not going to get -- maybe that's a good thing for some people. You're not going get the national test. If you're on cable, broadcast, satellite, media, yes.
CZARNECKIYou will be -- at 2 p.m., for a couple of minutes on the 9th, you will see your normal programming interrupted with a voice from FEMA or The White House, and you'll see a slate, in the case of cable, or a background graphic with a crawl in the case of broadcast television.
COOKENo, I think that that's a great point. And I know we'll be getting into this conversation at some point fairly soon, but people have wireless devices, people game. My son spends a great deal of his time playing FIFA Soccer with people from all over the world. And the capabilities are there to deliver alerts through all of these systems. Some are coming online as early as next April. Some are more in the future, but all are technically feasible.
COOKEHowever, none of those at this is subject to the current EAS rules. And I just want to make a very quick distinction. People say, why are you even bothering with this broadcast system when we have all this Internet and all this other cool stuff coming down the pike? And the answer is very simple. This is a system of last resort. When a power goes down, when the Internet goes down, AM radio and FM radio will still likely be available.
COOKEAnd if you have a car radio or your battery-powered radio, and things are dire enough to trigger the system, we know that this system, even though it is not perfect, works. And that's why we're testing it.
NNAMDIWe have a lot of calls and emails and people getting in touch with us. But first, we have to take a short break. When we come back, we'll return to this Tech Tuesday conversation on the Emergency Alert System. If you'd like to join the conversation, go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Or send us a hashtag at -- send us a tweet at #TechTuesday, or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's a Tech Tuesday conversation on the Emergency Alert System with Kelly Williams. He is the senior director for Engineering and Technology Policy at the National Association of Broadcasters, NAB. Ed Czarnecki is the senior director for Strategy, Development and Regulatory Affairs at Monroe Electronics, which provides advanced emergency alert equipment for television, radio and cable television and is based in upstate New York.
NNAMDIEd represents the company's Washington, D.C. office. Gregory Cooke is the associate chief in the policy division with the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission, FCC. I will go directly to the phones, where Jack in Lanham, Md. awaits us. Jack, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JACKHi. I think it's a good conversation (unintelligible) I guess it's sort of a -- top down view you're talking about. It -- there's another communications capability that a lot of people have, which is FRS radio. There was a group in Northwest Washington that urged the neighborhood sort of communication at the one quarter, half a mile range.
JACKAnd also, looking at the Katrina situation where they saw the Coast Guard helicopters rescuing people off -- a lot of this sort of highly capable helicopter (unintelligible) Helicopters...
NNAMDIYou're fading out on us, Jack. Jack, you've faded out on us completely. Before Jack comes back, there is one issue we do have to discuss. There are some big changes, Greg, coming to the system. What will the Emergency Alert System look like in the near future?
COOKEWell, Kojo, people now certainly listen to the radio and certainly watch TV, but wireless devices as much more than anything is -- are -- everyone has one. And they tend to be on all the time. And we also have, you know, IP-based communications, just as your caller from before was talking about, you know, streaming Netflix through your PS3, so people could as easily be on these devices as they could be watching their television and listening to their radios.
COOKESo we need to figure out a way to reach these folks. Similarly, the ability of the Internet, an IP-based communications to distribute rich content, not just sort of a basic who, what, when, where, but, perhaps, you know, video. Perhaps, really detailed information, detailed evacuation routes, links to URLs, it would give you much greater information. These are all possibilities that need to be integrated into an alert and warning system.
COOKEAnd with this in mind, in 2006, President Bush issued an executive order, Executive Order 13407, and really laid the groundwork for a next generation alerting system and required certain things to occur. So we're doing two or three things that, I think, are going to make very significant difference in alert and warning over the next five years.
COOKEOne, starting in April of 2012 will be the initiation of a cell phone-based alerting system called the Commercial Mobile Alerting System or PLAN, Personal Localized Alerting Network, system that will enable you to get 90-character alerting texts over your phone. Now, these are not SMS texts. These are not what we consider normal texting that, you know, your kids run up giant phone bills for.
COOKEThese are specially-generated texts using a technology that will allow you to receive the text when you're in the area of the emergency. So, for example, if you're driving into an area where there's a tornado watch and you're from --you know, driving across country, you'll get that alert on your phone. And it will generate itself by a special cadence and a special tone and will let you know either to take cover or to, you know, seek other, you know, look at other media.
COOKESo this is one system that is going to be launched in New York early at the end of the year. We'll able to see how it works there, but it's going to be launched nationwide in April.
NNAMDIIs this all a part of what's known as the Common Alerting Protocol?
COOKEIt uses the Common Alerting Protocol. It is part of what our colleagues at FEMA are developing as the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.
COOKEAnd the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System is a system that will allow an alert initiator, whomever, to initiate an alert based on an emergency, let's say a tornado watch, that then can find its way, using the Common Alerting Protocol, which is an XML IP-based language that will allow you to put a lot of data into common fields that then can be delivered simultaneously over multiple communications platforms so that the alert, the -- an Amber, for example, could then land on your TV, on your radio, on your cell phone and would also be received on smart highway signs.
COOKEAnd this could all happen fairly simultaneously. So this is really kind of exciting neat stuff that would be available nationally but also would be available for authorized alert initiators around the country.
NNAMDIOn the telephone from Lanham, Md. Jack is back. Jack, go ahead, please.
JACKYeah, hi, can you hear me okay?
NNAMDIYes, we can.
JACKGreat. My question was about -- there's also sort of a grassroots emergency communications capability that a lot of people have, which is the Family Radio Service walkie talkies, like Channel 1. There was a group in Northwest Washington that -- I don't know if it's still around. But they had a website, and they urged people to talk in the community like at the one-quarter, one-half a mile range, like, during a sort of situation where things had really gone badly, like in Katrina.
JACKThe other thing about that is they urged everyone to try out their FRS radios on Channel 1 with no tone at -- I think, seven o'clock every Sunday night is a test, and they -- also the -- if you look at the Katrina situation where...
NNAMDIOkay, we're running out of time, though. Do you have a specific question, Jack?
JACKYeah, is there any sort of a national interest in that? And also there are, like, Maryland state police helicopters have radios that can work on any frequency and could talk to people...
NNAMDIOkay. Here's Ed Czarnecki.
CZARNECKII'm aware of a couple of different groups that have brought these types of technologies, whether it's FRS or ham radio or other grassroots-type services to the attention of Homeland Security, which is FEMA's parent organization. For purpose of the Emergency Alert System, though, I don't think there -- there's one question of whether an EAS message could be rebroadcast into FRS or ham radio without (unintelligible) purpose.
CZARNECKIWe can talk about that. But, really, the -- you know, when you talk about these types of services, it's not really for emergency alerting. They could provide a tremendous role in continuity after disaster. You mentioned Katrina -- excuse me -- for maintaining communications after everything else has been frankly made unavailable for whatever reason. But for emergency alerting, I don't think -- it's kind of apples and oranges.
NNAMDIAnd we got a bunch of emails. I'll start with one from Eileen in Falls Church. "If I were a terrorist planning an attack on, say, infrastructure in the U.S., I'd choose the day of the test to cause the maximum confusion. What contingencies are in place to allow for this possibility and let people know the alarm is for real?" Kelly.
COOKEThis is -- this would be -- I'd pass the mic to FEMA if they were here on this one. But they're absolutely -- this occurred to us very, very early on. And so, of course, it would not necessarily even be a terrorist attack. You could have a tornado warning in some part of the country during the course of the test.
COOKEAnd I think they're going to be -- they're keeping a very careful eye on this at the operation center and would pull the plug on the test, either nationally or regionally, if, in case, this were to occur. And, I think, were it a real alert, people would know.
CZARNECKIAgain, the national test is only for three, three-and-a-half minutes. If there was another emergency, it would queue up and go to air right after that. So, if Northern Virginia or D.C. was to issue an Amber Alert, what have you, that would go back-to-back right after the (word?). It would be stored and played right over the air.
NNAMDIHere is Dustin in Martinsburg, W.Va. Dustin, your turn.
DUSTINHi. Good afternoon, Kojo.
DUSTINI guess some of my question may be cleared up by the simple fact that they're looking into mass texting for regional purposes. And that kind of involved my question involving the radio. Obviously, I'm calling you from Martinsburg, W.Va., regionally nowhere near where you really are in D.C. So if I were to miss a local broadcast on a local station because I'm listening to your fantastic show, you know, it's a -- such as an Amber Alert, you know, I could be driving right alongside.
NNAMDIWhat do you say to that, Greg?
COOKEThe -- particularly when the NextGen system comes online is that -- it's pretty much geo-targeted. And I think what would happen -- certainly, with your cell phone, that's going to be -- that can be geo-targeted fairly tightly. And initially, it'll be county by county. But the potential there is to really have it as geo-targeted as, like, a cell site.
COOKEAs far as the radio goes, even though you might be listening to a nationally syndicated radio show, you would still be listening to your local radio station that would be able to generate the local alert.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Rick, who said, "In the past, there's been talk of an emergency system that could actually turn on people's radios and maybe TVs -- I don't remember -- not just use ones that happened to be on. What has happened with that idea?" Kelly.
WILLIAMSSo that's around. There are -- I don't know if the -- that's really not so much with the system. It's the products. I know that RCA, for example, sold a set maybe five or six, seven years ago. I don't know if it's still on the market or not, but you could go in and preset some preferences. And if there was a weather alert, that bad boy would wake up in the middle of the night and probably scare the bejeezus out of you.
WILLIAMSBut there are some products out there. There are also weather radio products. And I mentioned little a while ago, when we were talking about that data, other products that sort of sleep. They are out there. So it's not really a system thing. It's a matter of products. And I think for people who want that, you can go out and Google them. And you'll find them.
NNAMDIA lot of our calls and emails seems to be about delivery systems. Here is Laura in Silver Spring, Md. Hi, Laura.
LAURAHello. I'm probably older than all of you, but in the '50s, every school ground across the country had a huge tower on it. And we all knew the -- it wasn't Morse code. But there were codes for duck and cover, it's all over, run for your life, whatever. What happened to those things? Are they gone? For people who are outside working...
NNAMDII can tell you for sure that Kelly Williams was not at Archbishop Carroll in the 1950s.
WILLIAMSI was, however, somewhere. That's the old civil defense systems, the Cold War civil defense stuff. And, yes, that's pretty much gone. It's sort of given way to, I think, probably more evolved local and national emergency management thought.
NNAMDIAlthough there's still tornado sirens across the Midwest, aren't there?
WILLIAMSYes. But here, I mean, the thing that -- I can only speak for the D.C. area where I grew up. Every Wednesday at -- no, first Wednesday of the month, 10 a.m., those sirens went off as a test, and we'd get under the desk. And I don't know. I guess in hindsight everyone now knows that getting under that desk provided you absolutely no protection, whatsoever.
NNAMDIHey, Laura, thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Victoria, who says, "I find it very frustrating that warnings and watch definitions are not easily accessed online, also that the nature of certain warnings like flashfloods are so general. If they are not understood, who knows where a flashflood can happen? Three people died in Virginia who did not understand the danger." What do you say to that, Greg Cooke?
COOKEWell, I think, in this case -- well, Kojo, I'm going to have to give that a little bit of thought because, you know...
NNAMDIYeah, don't -- here's Ed Czarnecki. He has a thought.
CZARNECKIThere's a whole different discussion outside of, you know, the technology policy. It's about the semantics of emergency warning and the phrase -- you know, how should an emergency manager phrase a warning in the minimum amount of text that gets the maximum amount of information out?
CZARNECKIAnd I think, you know, it's a valid question that, with increased use of a DAS system, with PLAN, with CMS, emergency managers are going to need to be attentive and trained as to actually how to communicate effectively with a very diverse population.
NNAMDIWe're out of time, but, Greg Cooke, I'd just like you underscore this occurs on the 9th of November.
COOKENinth of -- Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011 at 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time for about three minutes.
NNAMDIGregory Cooke is...
COOKEIt's only a test.
NNAMDIGregory Cooke is the associate chief in the policy division with the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau at the Federal Communication Commission. Greg, thank you for joining us.
COOKEThank you so much.
NNAMDIEd Czarnecki is the senior director for strategy, development and regulatory affairs with Monroe Electronics.
CZARNECKIThank you. It's been great being here.
NNAMDIKelly Williams is the senior director for engineering and technology policy at the National Association of Broadcasters. When I started in television, Kelly was one of the engineers at that station who had helped to build that station at Howard University. And then in 1989, he disappeared. Abducted by the NAB?
WILLIAMSYes. Great to see you again. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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