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Emergency Alert System: Why US is doing first national test now

A test of the federal Emergency Alert System is set for 2 p.m. Eastern time Wednesday. It's the first time the EAS warning system will be tested nationally.

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"Today's test is a major step forward toward a better system," says Dennis Mileti former director of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "What we've got today is not by any means a perfect warning system. Our alerting capacity is definitely going up at a national level with this test, but our warning capacity – that is, the ability to motivate the public to take protective action – needs a lot more work."

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Most people have access to a TV or radio. That's good, but if you aren't glued to a television or radio, you won't get the warning.

Americans listen to the radio on average around 12 percent of their day and the average television set is on about 30 percent of the day, Martin Bongers, project officer for the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) said in a rare speech outlining the system challenges a few years ago.

What’s more, less than 1 percent are listening or watching at night. And nearly 20 percent of households watch satellite television, which doesn't participate in the EAS. People with hearing impairments also are at a disadvantage in receiving an alert.

For all these reasons, Mr. Bongers and other experts say a better system is desperately needed.

A new system is on the way, say officials at the FCC.

The FCC has outlined a plan to develop a redundant multi-platform alerting system. The agency's ultimate goal is to have an integrated public alert and warning system that uses multiple communications technologies.

That plan coordinated by FEMA, the FCC, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) would integrate the existing EAS system with digital systems.

A key reason an upgrade is needed is the far more complex post-9/11 world we live in, experts say.

Previously, alerts focused on a single nuclear attack. Today, a multiplicity of agencies would be involved in dealing with possible terrorist attacks or accidents at nuclear, chemical, or industrial facilities.

There are also pandemic public health threats like Swine Flu.

"What's happened since 9/11 is the recognition that terrorists can do other things, like exploding dirty bombs, releasing toxic chemicals or biological agents," says Michael Lindell, a professor who teaches emergency management at the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. "This puts a lot more demand on a future version of the emergency alert system [to use] digital systems that are more adaptable and focused."

Perhaps as one example of why the old warning system needs an upgrade, FEMA and FCC officials admit that television viewers may not be clearly notified that today’s test is indeed, “only a test.”

"We acknowledge limits of this decades old technology. Because of these limitations, the visual may not work," says Rachel Racusen, a FEMA spokesperson. "The audio will say this is a test, but the visual may not say that on all TV screens that this is a test.”

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