WARN Act gets chop job

Congress included a drastically shortened version of the WARN Act emergency public warning legislation in the port security bill approved Sept. 30, according to a prominent emergency warning expert.

The new language relates primarily to cell phone use for emergency warnings, and does not contain provisions from the original Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act that would have set up a National Alert Office within the Homeland Security Department, said Art Botterell, a national public warning advocate and manager of Contra Costa County, Calif.'s warning system.

Nor does the new language establish a standards-based, multimodal, national alert system, which also is part of the original WARN Act. The new language focuses on cell phones only, Botterell wrote in a blog entry Oct. 3.

Provisions about public television's role are not included, either. The Homeland Security Department is testing a digitized version of alerts that would be broadcast by public television stations.

"The role of public TV stations is merely to enable the distribution of geographically targeted alerts by commercial mobile service providers," Botterell wrote. "Other warning technologies and their integration aren't addressed at all."

Botterell expressed disappointment with the changes, saying the new provisions appear to be a "giant leap backward from the integrated warning program of earlier versions."

"Yes, the WARN Act has cleared both the House and the Senate," Botterell wrote. "But it sure isn't the WARN Act we were expecting."

The new emergency warning provisions were included in Title VI of the Security and Accountability For Every Port Act of 2006, also known as the Safe Port act, which was passed by Congress last week.

Another WARN Act provision not included in the port legislation would have let the government apply federal resources to restore essential services such as telecommunications, power or water supply. In its place is a requirement that federal agencies must not impede access to a disaster site unless exceptional circumstances apply, Botterell said.

He said that requirement would have limited impact. "Since most access controls are implemented by local authorities rather than the feds, I don't think I'd count on this to make a lot of difference," he wrote.

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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