U.S. updates national emergency broadcast system

Published 12 July 2006

In 1951 President Harry Truman launched a national emergency radio broadcasting system aiming to alert Americans in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack on the U.S.; that system, thankfully, was never used, but President Bush has now ordered its upgrading so it could be used to broadcast warnings about national emergencies to Americans’ PDAs, cellular phones, Web sites, e-mail boxes, TV, and radio

The U.S. government will soon be in a position to send warnings about natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and other national emergencies on wireless phones, Web sites, and hand-held computers. The new digital system will update and upgrade the emergency alerts planned during the height of the cold war to alert the U.S. public in the event of a nuclear strike (the system was never used). FEMA expects to have the system working by the end of 2007. A test was conducted successfully last week at a public TV station in suburban Virginia.

The Association of Public Television Stations is partnering with FEMA to transmit the alerts to receiving networks which include wireless devices, cable TV channels, satellite radio, and traditional broadcast outlets. DHS spokesperson Aaron Walker says that “Anything that can receive a text message will receive the alert…. We find that the new digital system is more secure, it’s faster and it enables us to reach a wide array of citizens and alert them to pending disasters.”

Only the U.S. president can order a national emergency alert. The public TV stations have so far raised $1.1 billion — a third of it from the federal government — to convert antiquated technology at its 176 stations to digital systems that can transmit the alerts. Overall, the new warning system is expected to cost $5.5 million to test and deploy nationally, and $1 million annually to maintain, Walker said.