If This Had Been an Actual Emergency…  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    BROADCAST VIEWS    
From AJR,   December/January 2006

If This Had Been an Actual Emergency…   

The alert system designed to warn people of danger breaks down all too often.

By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     


In the middle of the night last January, a train loaded with poisonous chlorine gas derailed in Graniteville, South Carolina, and started leaking. Within 30 minutes, local television newsrooms were dispatching crews to the scene and preparing to broadcast live. But there was no word about the crash on the radio, leaving many residents in the dark.

Josh Pool was one of them. He lives near the railroad tracks, and the sound of the crash woke him up. He quickly drove to safety, only to wait and wonder what was going on. "We didn't know what else to do, so we sat [in the car] because we knew there had to be an emergency broadcast," he told WRDW-TV. But there wasn't, not for more than four hours. It was the latest evidence that the nation's broadcast warning system is broken and, despite lots of talk about fixing it, little has been done.

The Emergency Alert System is supposed to make sure that people in harm's way are informed of the danger by television and radio stations as well as cable and satellite systems. It's a federal program, established in 1994 to replace a system that dated back to the Eisenhower administration. According to the Federal Communications Commission's Web site, the EAS uses "state-of-the-art digital technology..to disseminate emergency information as quickly as possible to the people who need it." But it doesn't work as advertised.

The system may be high-tech, but it depends on a long and fallible human chain to get the message out. Emergency management officials in the county where an incident occurs have to ask their state counterparts to issue an alert.

In the Graniteville case, that request wasn't made until two hours after the accident. It took South Carolina emergency managers another 25 minutes to actually flip the switch to activate the EAS, sending a warning to the area's "primary" broadcast station that had to relay the message down the line to everyone else. The stations closest to the accident, including CBS affiliate WRDW-TV in North Augusta, South Carolina, didn't get the notice until almost two more hours had passed.

Delays aren't the only problem. EAS warnings, sent in code to data receivers at the stations, often provide no details or explanation. The message sent after the Graniteville derailment read: "A civil authority has issued a civil emergency for the following counties: Aiken, S.C."

"What does that mean?" asks WRDW News Director Estelle Parsley, who has been at the station for 17 years. The notices come in so late and are so vague, she says, "I cannot remember a time when an EAS alert has sparked us into action or told me something I didn't know."

Because FCC regulations require audio and visual warnings of emergencies, TV stations and cable providers can program their EAS decoders to generate on-air tickers automatically. The system works well when the National Weather Service issues a tornado alert, but other warnings can leave the audience perplexed or even misinformed.

The problem is that older decoders, still in use at many stations, generate a "civil emergency message" for everything from a terrorist attack to an Amber Alert for a missing child because the equipment can't distinguish the codes. Turning the automatic system off is no solution. The FCC has fined TV stations in San Diego and Washington, D.C., thousands of dollars for failing to provide adequate emergency messages for hearing-impaired viewers.

Sometimes EAS warnings aren't just confusing, they're plain wrong. This summer, stations in the Florida Panhandle briefly broadcast a radiological hazard warning after the weather service accidentally keyed in the wrong code during a system test. In Las Vegas, a station trying to cancel an earlier Amber Alert sent out the national crisis code — the one reserved for the president to use in case of nuclear attack.

The flaws in the EAS system are well known. This fall, a congressional research report warned, "The current hodgepodge of warning and alert systems is inadequate for fully alerting the public about terrorist attacks or natural disasters." But so far, the government has done nothing to fix it, and the solutions under discussion won't solve the basic problem.

Instead of relying only on radio and television, federal officials want to send alerts using text messaging, e-mail and cell phones, as some jurisdictions already do. All good ideas, but they miss the point, according to Ken Allen, former executive director of the now-defunct Partnership for Public Warning. The problem is not technology, he says, it's authority. "We can send you a message any time of the day or night on your cell phone or through your smoke detector, but we don't have clear policies on who can send it."

With no one in charge, the current patchwork system means that your chances of learning about a local emergency may depend on where you live. After the Asian tsunami a year ago, the federal government quickly decided to spend $37.5 million to monitor the U.S. coastline. But early warnings won't do much good if there's no reliable way to get the word to people at risk. What kind of catastrophe will it take for that message to get through?

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