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How States And The Federal Government Coordinate Emergency Alerts


So how is the emergency alert system supposed to work, and what sort of access should state and local governments have? For some answers to those questions, we called retired Admiral David Simpson. He's the former chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, and he told us these kinds of alerts date to the 1950s when the country was seriously worried about a nuclear threat.

DAVID SIMPSON: We needed an ability to communicate rapidly that an attack was inbound. We knew we'd have 10 minutes or more. So the system was set up for the president to be able to make that voice communication and then have it relayed through broadcast - both television and radio. As time went on, it became clear that that mechanism had significant utility at the state and local level as well, particularly for natural disasters.

So the system evolved to have multiple alert originators in addition to the president, DOD and FEMA. And since the beginning, now it's not just broadcast. As cable came on, cable operators are part of the system. And now wireless companies are a part. And even roadsigns and some electronic billboards can receive these emergency alerts.

MCEVERS: You know, it was 38 minutes before phones in Hawaii received a correction alert. Why isn't there a quicker way to do that?

SIMPSON: Well, there is a quicker way. The ability to lower that readiness state is really a function that rests within FEMA.

MCEVERS: You're saying a federal agency could have pretty quickly sent out a message saying false alarm; this is a mistake.

SIMPSON: I believe FEMA has the specific responsibility to communicate with DOD, get DOD's attack assessment. Is this a real attack or not? You wouldn't want the false false alarm if in fact there really were attack indications. So that is why the all-clear should come from the higher-level governmental entity.

MCEVERS: Should it be harder to send out an alert like this? You know, Hawaii says it has put in place a two-person verification rule. Is that a good idea, but - or should there be more restrictions?

SIMPSON: It should be harder. In fact I think - and I'm hopeful that in addition to the FCC's investigation, that there is a DOD-DHS-led investigation on exactly who should have the ability to communicate a ballistic missile launch warning. The states have no organic ability to determine whether or not a missile is inbound. They don't have radars. They don't have satellite systems. They don't have seismic indicators. All of those sensor capabilities reside within the Department of Defense.

And we have systems that we've spent tens of billions of dollars on to ensure that we can communicate in the darkest hour from DOD and DHS to the public. So I'm hopeful that DOD and DHS will investigate whether or not states should be sending ballistic missile warning.

MCEVERS: One other thing people have criticized about this alert was that it didn't provide any instructions about where to go or what to do. Should the alerts be longer and, you know - or should they include links to more information?

SIMPSON: They should. And at the FCC, it became very clear to us that 90 characters, which is what the wireless system was constrained to, didn't make any sense at all in a day where even tweets are longer than 90 characters. So we passed a rule that outlined a timeline by which the wireless carriers needed to be able to support 360 characters and support the inclusion of embedded hyperlinks so that a warning can go out with a link to more specific instructions on what to do, maybe a picture of an evacuation route.

So that was passed, but then the wireless carriers immediately issued a petition for reconsideration and essentially delayed action on it until the FCC took it up again in November of last year and denied the petition for reconsideration, essentially putting the rule into effect that will expand the character limit and include hyperlinks.

MCEVERS: Retired Admiral David Simpson, former chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau - we reached him on Skype. Thank you so much.

SIMPSON: Thank you, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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