Bush Orders Update of Emergency Alert System

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

President Bush yesterday ordered Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to overhaul the nation's hodgepodge of public warning systems, acknowledging a critical weakness unaddressed since the 2001 terrorist attacks and exposed again last year by Hurricane Katrina.

The Emergency Alert System, best known for weather bulletins and Amber Alerts for missing children, should be upgraded to explore communicating by cellphones, personal digital assistants and text pagers targeted to geographic areas or specific groups, U.S. officials said.

In a 30-paragraph executive order issued by the White House without comment, Bush assigned Chertoff to implement a freshly stated U.S. policy "to ensure that under all conditions the President can communicate with the American people," including in cases of war, terrorist attack, natural disaster or other public danger.

The move follows mounting criticism that the nation's alert systems are outmoded relics of the Cold War. The first was set up in 1951 to enable the president to address the public in the event of nuclear attack through a chain of television and radio broadcasters.

Under existing rules, for example, participation of broadcasters in state and local alerts is voluntary. The Federal Communications Commission limits messages to two minutes, and the system's technology is outdated.

The Emergency Alert System was never used during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but the independent commission that investigated them concluded that "adequate communications" are central to government and private-sector preparedness. Legislation that overhauled U.S. intelligence activities in 2004 required a study of using telecommunications networks in an all-hazards warning system, but the report has not been done.

In February, the White House again called for an update of the Emergency Alert System in its report on the flawed response to Hurricane Katrina, noting that state and local officials failed to use it to warn the public before the storm.

"The fact that the president has said something is a positive step in the right direction," said Kenneth H. Allen, who was head of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Warning, a consortium of state, local and private-sector officials that urged upgrading alert systems after the 2001 attacks but disbanded in 2004 because of lack of funding. "It's time for all parties to work together to implement it."

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said Congress has set aside $25 million over three years for pilot studies of public notification efforts such as reverse 911 calling programs or text messages sent to personal pagers, similar to those in the District and Arlington County.

But the White House order calls for "an integrated alert and warning system that reaches as many Americans as possible through as many forms of communication as possible -- television, radios, PDAs, cellphones, et cetera," said Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke. "We're talking about a quantum leap forward."

The program would be managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Analysts have said that bureaucratic inertia and turf fighting among government agencies and resistance from industry to new mandates have stymied changes since 2001.

Yesterday, Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, said, "We support strengthening the EAS system, to the extent that it's flexible, reasonable and works within the constraints of the existing system."

Bush ordered federal agencies to help as requested. The directive includes the Pentagon, the Commerce Department and the FCC, which must adopt rules requiring that communications systems be able to transmit alerts.

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