Report: Nation's alert system needs major overhaul

The nation's Emergency Alert System is inadequate and woefully outdated, according to a new report from the Congressional Research Service, the research arm of Congress.

The current system, originally designed for 1950s technologies such as radio and broadcast television, badly needs to be updated with capabilities to send alerts over the Internet and other modern IT systems and devices, including e-mail, text messages, cell phones, Blackberries and pagers, said the report, dated Sept. 2. It has not been released publicly.

"Much has been accomplished in recent years, but the current hodgepodge of warning and alert systems is inadequate for fully alerting the public about terrorist attacks or natural disasters, or for providing information on how to respond," the CRS report stated.

The civil defense system was initially established in 1951 under the Control of Electromagnetic Radiation Act as a response to the threat of nuclear attack. Since 1963, it has been known as the Emergency Broadcast System. The system of mostly radio and TV stations is required to transmit presidential emergency messages and is used voluntarily by state and local authorities.

Several initiatives are under way to improve federal warning systems. The National Weather Service, for example, has expanded to include warnings for all hazards, and Amber Alert systems for reporting missing children operate in most states. Many communities operate sirens and other local alert systems. The Homeland Security Department is testing a digitized alert system in the National Capital Region.

The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 required a study of using telecommunications networks as part of an all-hazards warning system. That study has not yet been completed, the report said.

Following last year's devastating tsunami in Asia, Congress is considering several pieces of legislation to upgrade tsunami warning systems globally. Several other bills would improve emergency alerts domestically and internationally.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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