Emergency warning systems ‘unreliable’

By Jon Dougherty

Discovering that many components of the nation’s disaster warning systems still rely on decades-old equipment, an assessment of the systems by a private firm has found them to be “incomplete, highly fragmented, unreliable and slow.”

The draft assessment, which has not yet been made public, comes on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and paints a dismal picture of domestic emergency management systems, which would be used in the event of future terrorist attacks or other national emergencies.

“U.S. emergency managers can’t counter terrorism with 1950’s systems and tools,” said Kendall Post, vice president of engineering at Wisconsin-based Alert Systems Inc. and primary author of the report.

“Congress is about to authorize billions of dollars for counterterrorism, but the nation has no plan, no standards, no common objectives for the infrastructure that underlies and enables all homeland security and emergency management processes and activities,” said Post, who is also an official with the Partnership for Public Warning. “As a result, obsolete equipment will be patched and failed systems further entrenched.”

The draft report also notes that existing computer technology within national and local warning systems has become archaic and “primitive,” meaning vital news and information cannot be relayed to the public “in real time.”

“Critical decisions are too often educated guesses. Activities are reactive rather than proactive. Techniques of immense value to public safety and homeland security are impractical and unused,” said the draft.

“By ignoring the harsh lessons of Sept. 11, Washington dishonors those who died,” Post said in an e-mail to WorldNetDaily. He added that his company is attempting to win a federal contract to provide the home receivers and technology that he says will help “modernize and unify the national emergency warning pipeline and pipeline components beyond federal agencies.”

Targeting is key

According to an engineer with Alert Systems who asked not to be identified, his company is developing a portable receiver system executives believe will solve most of the problems with current alert technology – reaching the right people at the right time and in time to avoid further loss of life or property.

He says the company is prepared to market the receivers to homes, businesses and critical emergency infrastructures like transportation and utility sectors that would be “capable of receiving the targeted warning” from emergency centers in times of disaster.

“Say there is a tornado in your area,” the engineer told WorldNetDaily. “Rather than alert the entire county or entire region, an emergency center, using our technology, would be able to send a targeted warning to residents and authorities only in the projected swath of the tornado.”

At present, most Americans rely on aged civil-defense systems – such as community sirens – and the national-level Emergency Alert System, which is operated by the Federal Communications Commission, for news and information concerning disasters. Using the Alert Systems device – which could cost as little as $50 after two years – only people in disaster areas would be alerted.

Also, said the engineer, local or regional emergency centers would be “interoperable” – meaning if one went out of service or was destroyed, another in the same general area would be capable of sending targeted warning data to residents of the area that lost its center.

Quoting a federal study, the draft report noted that government planners realize current warning systems are incapable of warning the greatest number of people in the most threatened areas – and doing so quickly.

“The major problem in modern emergency management is the [lack] of an effective warning system that reaches every person at risk … no matter what they are doing or where they are located,” said a Nov. 8, 2000, Federal Emergency Management Agency report, “Effective Disaster Warnings.”

Due to higher alert status in Washington, FEMA officials were unable to respond to interview requests yesterday. Nevertheless, according to published information, the agency says it has been working to improve disaster warning and alert systems nationwide.

Alert Systems officials believe their system is superior.

“Ours will solve the fundamental strategic messaging and accessibility problems of local public warnings,” the engineer told WND. “It does so in a way that enables and facilitates modernization and unification of the entire public warning information pipeline and its components.”

The draft report added that modernizing, operating and maintaining an effective national system will cost about 80 cents per capita, or about $225 million per year – an “easily justified” cost that would be offset simply by retiring obsolete systems.

Post envisions leasing his company’s technology for about $30,000 a year to local and regional emergency centers, a figure that includes maintenance and system upgrades. The engineer hinted that consumers likely would have to bear the cost of each home receiver unit.

Consequences of inaction ‘substantial’

One way FEMA alerts regions to disasters is through the operation of its own radio network which, in times of national crisis, can be accessed by local commercial radio stations.

In the event of a disaster, commercial stations can access agency news and information via toll-free telephone numbers. The messages can be downloaded or recorded by the stations for later broadcast to the public, making a portable radio a disaster victim’s primary source of information.

But such systems could encounter high failure rates. If disasters strike at odd times, such as at night when most people are in bed and not listening to radios, they are likely to miss the alert.

Alert Systems officials said their system would overcome that deficiency because it will sound a warning that would awaken most people if activated by a regional emergency center. And rather than waking everyone up, only those people directly affected by tragedy would be alerted, thereby reducing the “fatigue factor” of having to endure several false alarms or alarms meant for other regions and areas.

Also, Post said, the technology is available to direct emergency alerts to hand-held devices such as cell-phones in case people are not at home when a national emergency hits.

In criticizing current systems as ineffective, the draft report warned that any interruption in the information “pipeline” – especially in the era of terrorism – would be disastrous.

“The consequences are measured in human lives, property damage, economic activity losses, environmental damage, recovery times, long-term emotional impact, business failures and other factors,” said the report. “By any measure they are substantial.”

“For years, emergency managers who have experienced major disasters have been saying the national emergency warning pipeline and associated operating tools need to be modernized,” the report said.

“Now, the events of Sept. 11 and the continuing threat of terrorism on U.S. soil make modernization an immediate national imperative.”

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