Personal Planning
Staying Informed and Staying in Touch

"This is a test of the Emergency Alert System. . . . This is only a test."

Those familiar words, which have sporadically interrupted radio and television broadcasts for years, offer assurance that officials can deliver timely warnings in the event of an emergency.

But that's just a beginning.

Exactly how the government will communicate with residents and how residents will communicate with one another in an emergency has -- since Sept. 11, 2001 -- emerged as one of the primary challenges facing emergency planners.

Staying informed, particularly if there is an attack or other event at an unusual hour, could pose a major difficulty. Any such problems would be exacerbated under extreme conditions, such as a power outage, or when the communications network was overloaded.

The Emergency Alert System should work fine for anyone within range of a television or radio, and broadcast news outlets probably would provide blanket coverage of any dangerous situation. Police bullhorns and sirens also could be used to alert residents.

In addition, authorities make the following points:

• To make sure emergency broadcasts of official information are available when electricity isn't, it is important to have a battery-operated AM/FM radio.

"Information is power, and in an emergency, people without information feel powerless," said Merni Fitzgerald, public information officer for Fairfax County.

• A weather alert radio costs as little as $20 and can get warnings of threats other than weather emergencies.

Weather radios can remain on standby until a warning is issued from a nearby National Weather Service office. Some local jurisdictions say their emergency alerts will be made available that way. More expensive radio models can filter out messages not intended for your immediate area. For more information, visit the Web site at

"We've been getting a lot of inquiries about [radios] since Sept. 11," said Chris Alex, a meteorologist with the Weather Service branch that disseminates hazard warnings. "When these really shine is when you're asleep or other times when broadcast information is not readily accessible."

• Some counties and cities in the region have or are acquiring emergency notification systems that anyone can sign up for. In an emergency, the systems would send warnings to a device of your choosing, for example, a text-messaging mobile phone, a pager or an e-mail account.

Hundreds of Fairfax City residents have signed up to receive such messages, and Arlington County expects to have its system in place this spring. Fairfax and Montgomery counties are considering similar efforts.

"We have found it very helpful, particularly during the recent snowstorms," said Chris Fow, community relations specialist for Fairfax City. Family members and friends should plan how they will stay in touch during an emergency, authorities said.

As area residents may recall, cell phones, a common means of making emergency calls on most days, could not get through during the chaos of Sept. 11, 2001. The problem was essentially one of call volume: Wireless traffic in New York City was 1,400 percent higher than normal peak levels, and Washington's cell traffic was 400 percent higher, according to Travis Larson, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, a trade group.

"No public network -- the highways, the Internet, whatever -- is designed to handle everyone using it at the same time," Larson said.

But even if you can't get a voice call through, your cell phone may still communicate for you. Most new ones have text-messaging capability, a feature that worked well on Sept. 11 because text messages require less capacity and get through more easily.

"Voice and text messages take different paths through the network," said Jim Dailey, senior adviser on homeland security for the Federal Communications Commission. "The text message is a very fast data transmission."

For similar reasons, wireless e-mail gizmos may work when wireless voice calls can't get through. Because wireless e-mail worked on Sept. 11 when voice calls didn't, BlackBerry e-mail devices have been handed out to members of the House of Representatives. There are several models, starting around $400, and customers have to purchase a wireless service plan.

Authorities generally recommend having several means of communicating -- including e-mail, other Internet services, pagers and two-way radios -- because it is difficult to predict the effect of a disaster.

On the low-tech end, they suggest setting up a phone contact outside the region because often when local phone lines are jammed, long-distance lines are not.

"The public needs to make sure that they have redundant means of communication," said Dave Robertson, interim executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "If one thing doesn't work, something else will."

-- Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer