It wasn't so long ago that the high pitched beeps of the old Emergency Broadcast System were replaced with the odd electronic belching of the Emergency Alert System (EAS). But now FEMA (which oversees the system), the Department of Homeland Security and PBS are giving the EAS a digital makeover and are preparing the latest in useless federal notification systems - the Digital Emergency Alert System.
The new system will allow the government to send text, voice or video directly to people's phones, e-mail accounts, Treos and Blackberries. The digital EAS system will augment the existing system, in which a daisy chain of radio and TV stations notify each other of emergencies, and local and federal authorities can reach in and broadcast directly over all broadcast outlets if they so desire (although that's never happened, unfortunately. It would be such a wonderful Big Brother moment).
So the next time the flood waters are a-rising, FEMA will be able to send a short video message to everybody in the affected towns showing the ideal evacuation route. That sure would be a big improvement from the way our EAS unit worked two Delaware River floods ago, when we were instructed to announce that "a Civil Authority" had declared a "Civil Emergency Message." It was unclear what the emergency message was, which towns were affected, or what the proper procedures were. (We found out the next day that many towns along the river were under an evacuation order.) Under the new system, such scary and useless messages can be digitally delivered directly to the citizenry, complete with graphics.
The digital EAS is meant to address a few of the fatal flaws inherent in the existing system. First and foremost, during real emergencies, there's an excellent chance that the very TV and radio station which are meant to disseminate life-saving information will themselves be destroyed. This happened during 9/11, when the transmitters of all but one of New York's TV stations and dozens of its FM radio stations were destroyed along with the Twin Towers. (The FCC announced that the Emergency Alert System wasn't utilized that day because "the emergency was self-evident." And since the EPA had erroneously declared the air quality of the 9/11 debris cloud to be perfectly safe for human consumption, what was there to warn people about anyway?)
Similar problems occurred on the Gulf Coast, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed the facilities of dozens of broadcast outlets which were meant to notify people of emergency procedures. In it's defense, the EAS did transmit an accurate and scary announcement from the National Weather Service ahead of Katrina, but radio and TV stations did not necessarily have to re broadcast the exact text of that message.
The digital EAS is also supposed to address the problem evidenced on 9/11, when cell phone networks were overwhelmed by the volume of people calling friends and family in the wake of the attack. By relying on digital IP broadcasting on PBS TV stations, the government hopes to be able to send text messages to every cell phone in a given region without putting any extra strain on the regional wireless networks.
It's all a marvelous idea, and if it weren't being organized by the same people who brought us the erroneous evacuation of Connecticut, I'd be all for it. But with the federally mandated EAS unit in the WFMU studio constantly chattering away about "Unknown Events," and issuing warnings about heavy seas in Maritime Sector 34672B, the digital EAS portends a new type of electronic junk coming in to your voicemail and e-mail box: FEMA Disaster Spam. Which is certain not to overwhelm regional networks. Until millions of people try to call back for clarification on the incomprehensible message they just received.