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Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Emergency Alert System (EAS) and All-Hazard Warnings

Linda K. Moore
Specialist in Telecommunications Policy

The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is built on a structure conceived in the 1950s when over-theair broadcasting was the best-available technology for widely disseminating emergency alerts. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) jointly administers EAS with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in cooperation with the National Weather Service (NWS), an organization within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NOAA/NWS weather radio system has been upgraded to include an all-hazard warning capability. Measures to improve the NOAA network and a new Digital Emergency Alert System (DEAS) are ongoing. DEAS benefits from the additional capacity that digital technology provides for message transmission. In addition, FEMA is developing the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) to meet requirements for an alert system as specified by an Executive Order issued by President George W. Bush. When completed, IPAWS should be able to accept any legitimate alert or action announcement, verify it, and relay it to wide variety of communications devices.

Legislation was passed at the end of the 109
th Congress (Warning, Alert, and Response Network Act, or WARN Act, as signed into law as Title VI of P.L. 109-347) to assure funding to public television stations to install digital equipment to handle alerts. The law also required the establishment of a committee to provide the FCC with recommendations regarding the transmittal of emergency alerts by commercial mobile service providers to their subscribers. Committee recommendations provided the structure for a Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), regulated by the FCC. Under the timetable agreed to by the FCC and FEMA, CMAS will become operational by April 7, 2012.

The federal agency responsible for completing critical work on CMAS, DEAS, and IPAWS is FEMA’s National Continuity Program Directorate. IPAWS began as a federal program that would be available for state and local alerts. Its mission was then redefined to apply only for federal messages, placing the program at odds with the broader goals of DEAS and the broadcasters that transmit alerts. According to testimony in September 2009 before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management, IPAWS will once more be developed as a comprehensive system to support the broader goal of combining federal participation with state, local, and tribal emergency management practices. Indecision and shifting goals in the past have, however, contributed to a lack of progress and significant delays in implementing IPAWS and related programs.

Bills have been introduced that address the delays by compelling FEMA to fulfill its commitments (H.R. 2591, Representative Diaz-Balart, and H.R. 3377, Representative Oberstar). The WMD Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2009 (S. 1649, Senator Lieberman) and the WMD Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2010 (H.R. 5498, Representative Pascrell) include requirements for emergency alerts. The Amateur Radio Emergency Communications Enhancement Act of 2009 (S. 1755, Senator Lieberman, and H.R. 2160, Representative Jackson- Lee) would require a study of the role of amateur radio in disseminating emergency alerts and information.

Date of Report: August 26, 2010
Number of Pages: 15
Order Number: RL32527
Price: $29.95

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