Next steps unclear after balky national alert test
Planned cooperatively by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Federal Communications Commission, the 30-second test message of the Emergency Alert System that went out at 2:00 p.m. EST on Wednesday was designed for relay to all 50 states and U.S. territories through the efforts of private and nonprofit broadcast radio and television stations, cable TV, satellite radio and TV services and wire line video services. The dry run was designed to gauge the functioning of multipronged media outlets in getting government information out in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack.
Instead of a clear test message, however, news outlets reported that some stations interrupted programming to deliver dead air or a distorted signal, along with some reports of music by Lady Gaga.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told ABC News he is "concerned that we are probably seeing more failures than what we thought. But we didn't know what we didn't know. If you don't test you can't fix," he said. "We can't afford to have this happen for an actual event . . . I'll take the criticisms. I know people weren't happy. I apologize for the disruptions that people went through."
National Association of Broadcasters Executive Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton said in a statement: "Our initial feedback is that most radio and television stations ran the nationwide EAS test successfully, although some isolated glitches may have occurred. We look forward to continuing to work with our federal partners to diagnose and improve the EAS system."
Spokesmen for the National Cable Television Association said their staff was gathering feedback from member companies. "We do know that in many places, the Emergency Alert Notification flowed through to viewers without a hitch. However, we also know that in some places, it did not . . . In the coming days and weeks, we'll continue to work closely with FEMA and the FCC so that we can collectively identify the specific cable industry gaps and determine how they can be addressed in the future. And we remain committed to implementing the next-generation alert system, which will be deployed by all EAS participants by June 2012."
FEMA Assistant Administrator Damon Penn wrote in a blog that assembling full results will take weeks, as participants under FCC rules have 45 days to report. "As we often say here at FEMA, we're just one part of a much, much larger team," he wrote. "To prepare for this test, FEMA worked closely with state and local officials, the broadcast community, as well as nongovernmental organizations, including the disability and faith-based communities.
"Looking ahead, this test was just the beginning of our much larger efforts to strengthen and upgrade our nation's public alert and warning system, he said. As we work to build a more modern system, we will continue to test the other newer technologies and communications tools that are also going to be part of our public alert and warning networks, such as cellphones, smartphones, the Internet and social media networks."
The notion that the test might expose communications gaps was discussed last month at a hearing of the House Homeland Security Subommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications.