Emergency Preparedness:

Current Emergency Alert System Has Limitations, and Development of a New Integrated System Will Be Challenging

GAO-07-411: Published: Mar 30, 2007. Publicly Released: Mar 30, 2007.

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During emergencies, the public needs accurate and timely information. Through the Emergency Alert System (EAS), the media play a pivotal role, assisting emergency management personnel in communicating to the public. GAO reviewed (1) the media's ability to meet federal requirements for participating in EAS, (2) stakeholder views on the challenges facing EAS and potential changes to it, and (3) the progress made toward developing an integrated alert system. GAO reviewed the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) proposed rulemaking on EAS and interviewed media outlets, state emergency management officials, and federal agencies responsible for EAS, including FCC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

According to stakeholders, the media are generally prepared to participate in EAS as required, but EAS has limitations that could affect its performance. Broadcast radio and television, cable operators, and satellite radio operators are required to participate in national EAS alerts, and satellite television will be required to participate in May 2007. Participation in state and local alerts is voluntary. While these media outlets appear generally prepared to participate, FCC has limited measures for ensuring compliance. In addition, stakeholders cited limitations, including an unreliable method for relaying national EAS messages to the public. GAO found a lack of ongoing testing of this relay method. In a national test, three primary relay stations failed, and in one state test, a state representative reported that the message was not received beyond an area roughly 50 to 70 miles from the state capital. Problems with equipment and software caused these failures, which, in a real emergency, could have prevented the public from receiving critical information. Another cited limitation was inadequate training of EAS personnel. FEMA officials and other stakeholders told GAO that the current EAS faces a range of technical, cultural, and other challenges, such as interfacing with newer communications technologies and issuing alerts in multiple languages. FEMA said the alerting system should provide various means to reach the greatest number of people, and FCC reported that a wide-reaching public alert system is critical to the public safety. In November 2005, FCC proposed changes to improve EAS and address some of the challenges facing it. Stakeholders GAO contacted anticipated positive results from some of the potential changes, such as expanding EAS alerts to additional media, but expressed mixed views on other potential changes. For example, the emergency managers GAO contacted generally favored making the transmission of state and local alerts mandatory, whereas the broadcasters GAO interviewed expressed concern about over alerting, which they said could lead the public to ignore EAS messages. Several efforts to develop an integrated alert system--one that would provide effective warnings over all broadcast media devices available to the public--are underway. FEMA is conducting various pilots under a public-private partnership called the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. One such pilot, the Digital Emergency Alert System, uses the digital capabilities of the nation's public television stations to provide public alerts. Another effort, the Warning, Alert, and Response Network Act, is aimed at integrating emergency alerts and enables the participation of wireless providers in EAS. However, FEMA officials and others identified challenges to the implementation of an integrated system, including achieving cooperation among federal, state, and local emergency management organizations on the use of a standardized technology for disseminating alerts. Coordination and collaboration among a variety of stakeholders will be critical to ensure that all elements of the system can work together and produce accurate, timely alerts for all Americans.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that the Emergency Alert System is capable of operating as intended and that coordination with a variety of stakeholders on the implementation of the integrated public alert and warning system exists, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director, FEMA, to work in conjunction with the Chairman, FCC, to establish a forum for the diverse stakeholders involved with emergency communications to discuss emerging and other issues related to the implementation of an integrated public alert and warning system. Representation on the forum should include relevant federal agencies, state and local governments, private industry, and the affected consumer community.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Emergency Preparedness and Response: Federal Emergency Management Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Effectively implementing an integrated alert system will require collaboration among a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including those at the federal, state, and local levels; private industry; and the affected consumer community. We found a regular forum for public and private stakeholders to discuss emerging issues related to the implementation of an integrated alert system did not exist. Without such a forum, coordination among the diverse stakeholders could occur on an ad-hoc basis, but there would be no systematic means of bringing all interested public and private stakeholders together for a comprehensive, strategic review of the processes, standards, systems, and strategies related to the implementation of the integrated system. We recommended that FEMA, in conjunction with FCC, establish a forum for the diverse stakeholders involved with emergency communications to discuss emerging and other issues related to the implementation of an integrated public alert and warning system. In response to this recommendation, in March 2010, FEMA developed and implemented a Stakeholder Engagement Plan, which according to FEMA, identifies user communities and specifies communication means to ensure effective coordination among stakeholders. Furthermore, FEMA, in coordination with FCC, has engaged the Emergency Alert System (EAS) community by facilitating forums, participating in trade conferences, and distributing marketing publications. FEMA said it has also developed an external idea sharing Web site to discuss best practices and lessons learned from the EAS community on a variety of topics that will support discussions during webinar and roundtable events. By meeting regularly with FCC and other community stakeholders, FEMA is better able to ensure that the evolving public alert and warning systems will effectively protect life and property.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the Emergency Alert System is capable of operating as intended and that coordination with a variety of stakeholders on the implementation of the integrated public alert and warning system exists, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director, FEMA, to work in conjunction with the Chairman, FCC, to develop and implement a plan to verify (1) the dependability and effectiveness of the relay distribution system, which is used to disseminate national-level EAS alerts, and (2) that EAS participants have the training and technical skills to issue effective EAS alerts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Emergency Preparedness and Response: Federal Emergency Management Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: While the Emergency Alert System (EAS) is one of the mainstays of the nation's capacity to communicate emergency information to the public during disasters, we found its reliability to issue such warnings is uncertain. With no requirements to test the relay system for disseminating national-level alerts and with no nationwide test results, the public lacks assurance that EAS would work as intended in a national emergency. We recommended that FEMA work in conjunction with FCC to develop and implement a plan to verify the dependability and effectiveness of the relay distribution system used to disseminate national-level alerts. In 2009, FEMA responded to this recommendation by coordinating with FCC to plan for the first-ever nationwide test of EAS, which is scheduled to occur November 9, 2011. As a result of this action, FEMA will have an opportunity to assess the readiness and effectiveness of the current system. According to a FEMA official, the first-ever nationwide test is a step towards ensuring that the alert and warning community is prepared to deliver critical information that can help save lives and protect property. Furthermore, the first nationwide test will establish a baseline from which FEMA can make incremental improvements to EAS with ongoing and future testing.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the Emergency Alert System is capable of operating as intended and that coordination with a variety of stakeholders on the implementation of the integrated public alert and warning system exists, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director, FEMA, to work in conjunction with the Chairman, FCC, to develop and implement a plan to verify (1) the dependability and effectiveness of the relay distribution system, which is used to disseminate national-level EAS alerts, and (2) that EAS participants have the training and technical skills to issue effective EAS alerts.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Adequate training for all Emergency Alert System (EAS) participants is critical to ensure that they are qualified to use the equipment and draft effective emergency messages that the public will be able to understand and act upon. We found a significant limitation of EAS is inadequate training for EAS participants, both in the use of EAS equipment and in the drafting of EAS messages. We recommended that FEMA, in conjunction with FCC, develop and implement a plan to verify that EAS participants have the training and technical skills to issue effective EAS alerts. FEMA responded to this recommendation by improving the training for EAS participants and making the system more user-friendly. In particular, FEMA, in coordination with FCC, worked with the Emergency Management Institute to develop specific training for emergency managers. In June 2011, FEMA held a focus group of alerting and communications industry subject matter experts and state and local emergency managers to validate the training. According to FEMA, the long range plan is to incorporate the Web-based training for emergency managers into the FEMA National Incident Management Systems training pipeline. As a result, the overall effectiveness of EAS will be improved since EAS participants will learn the skills necessary to issue alerts that elicit appropriate public action.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the Emergency Alert System is capable of operating as intended and that coordination with a variety of stakeholders on the implementation of the integrated public alert and warning system exists, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director, FEMA, to work in conjunction with the Chairman, FCC, to establish a forum for the diverse stakeholders involved with emergency communications to discuss emerging and other issues related to the implementation of an integrated public alert and warning system. Representation on the forum should include relevant federal agencies, state and local governments, private industry, and the affected consumer community.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Effectively implementing an integrated alert system will require collaboration among a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including those at the federal, state, and local levels; private industry; and the affected consumer community. We found a regular forum for public and private stakeholders to discuss emerging issues related to the implementation of an integrated alert system did not exist. Without such a forum, coordination among the diverse stakeholders could occur on an ad-hoc basis, but there would be no systematic means of bringing all interested public and private stakeholders together for a comprehensive, strategic review of the processes, standards, systems, and strategies related to the implementation of the integrated system. We recommended that FEMA, in conjunction with FCC, establish a forum for the diverse stakeholders involved with emergency communications to discuss emerging and other issues related to the implementation of an integrated public alert and warning system. In response to this recommendation, in March 2010, FEMA developed and implemented a Stakeholder Engagement Plan, which according to FEMA, identifies user communities and specifies communication means to ensure effective coordination among stakeholders. Furthermore, FEMA, in coordination with FCC, has engaged the Emergency Alert System (EAS) community by facilitating forums, participating in trade conferences, and distributing marketing publications. FEMA said it has also developed an external idea sharing Web site to discuss best practices and lessons learned from the EAS community on a variety of topics that will support discussions during webinar and roundtable events. By meeting regularly with FCC and other community stakeholders, FEMA is better able to ensure that the evolving public alert and warning systems will effectively protect life and property.

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