Thursday, December 18, 2008

Emergency Alert System: the Present and the Future

This morning we issued an Emergency Alert System (EAS) message to warn the public about a telephone outage at our 911 center (see last blog). Some TV watchers would have seen a message scroll across the screen that said “Civil Authorities have issued a Civil Emergency Message for Clark County, Washington”. Radio listeners may have just heard the EAS data bursts and the attention tone. What everyone should have also heard was a brief voice message from Scott, our duty officer today, warning of the problems with our phone system. Unfortunately, because of a technical problem, this voice message was not included in the warning. This creates understandable confusion and we’re working to resolve the problem and make sure that the system works right the next time.

There have been a few instances over the years where EAS has had problems. This system relies on a partnership between broadcasters, cable providers, the National Weather Service, and emergency managers and on a complex web of radio and data technologies. At any point, any link in this chain can have a problem which can generate faulty alerts. To ensure its reliability, EAS is tested on a weekly basis by all broadcasters. We also do regular live tests with broadcasters to ensure that the whole system works. Still, problems occur.

The important thing to remember is that EAS has worked for us and it can save lives. For the tornado that tore through Clark County early this year, the first warning that most people got was from the EAS warning issued by the National Weather Service. Around the country EAS has been used many times to let people know about tornados, hurricanes, chemical spills, and other life-threatening emergencies. To augment EAS and to add to our warning capabilities, CRESA also has a telephone warning system and we rely on, a rapid media notification service.

Starting late next year, you may start to see some improvements to EAS as we begin implementation of the Common Alerting Protocol. Without going into technical details, CAP is a simple standard for the creation and delivery of warning messages that will make it so we can accurately and quickly issue warnings via EAS, telephones, highway message boards, text devices, NOAA Weather Radio, media notification services, blogs, and other web messaging tools. Eventually, new CAP-compliant systems may completely replace the current EAS system.

In the mean time, stick with us and please be patient as we work to continuously improve our ability to warn you of emergencies. If you see warning information that doesn’t make sense, the best first step is to check your favorite radio or television news station for further information about the alert. We do our best to provide information to them quickly. Most of all, please avoid calling 911 unless you have a real emergency.

No comments: