Emergency Alert System failure

The first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System in 14 years will take place at 2 p.m. today, but you probably won’t get the message. The current system only works on radio and television stations — as if it were still 1997 and cell phones were rare.

Today’s test exemplifies first responders’ antiquated notions of centralized command-and-control networks. Americans are more likely listening to MP3s than the radio and watching Hulu or their DVR instead of live television. FEMA should design emergency communications systems that take advantage of the centrality of cell phones in our lives. A system for sending emergency alerts directly to cell phones will launch in April of 2012, but participation by cellular operators is optional.

The Public Safety Alliance, a coalition of first responder organizations, claims that commercial cellular networks are unsuitable for use by first responders during emergencies and wants more spectrum for the exclusive use of first responders.

But commercial cellular networks can meet the needs of first responders. These networks are already very resilient. When D.C. was rocked by a recent earthquake, no wireless towers went down. And during Hurricane Irene, no major wireless network switches were knocked out of service and all 9-1-1 centers and public safety officials retained communications. By pre-staging repair teams, carriers were able to begin making repairs as soon as the storm had passed. These emergency planning efforts are a model for other industries.

The challenge to commercial mobile networks isn’t the minimal physical damage caused by natural disasters, it’s a kind of tragedy of the commons: If everyone uses their cell phones simultaneously, the networks can’t handle the load. On September 11, 2001, the amount of national traffic on Verizon Wireless’s network was 50% to 100% more than normal. Today, when disaster strikes, the first impulse for many people is to reach for their cell phones. But in most cases, they’re not using their phones for emergency purposes.

Addressing this problem would be much cheaper and efficient than building a separate system for first responders. And it isn’t necessary to build so much extra capacity that these networks can handle the kind of “temporary mass calling events” caused by disasters. Instead, prioritization systems should be used to ensure that first responders and emergency calls go through. Such a system is already in place for voice communications. The Wireless Priority System gives critical personnel priority access on all the major networks and “greatly increas[es] the probability (90%) that your cellular call will get through the network, even with congestion.” The Next Generation 9-1-1 program is developing systems to allow Americans to send photos and text messages to emergency operators.

What’s missing is a public awareness-building campaign akin to “Only you can prevent forest fires!” The message should be simple: “Wait 20, save a life!” If enough Americans remembered to wait at least 20 minutes after a major disaster before using their phones for non-emergency purposes, civilian calls to 9-1-1 could still get through. The FCC, CTIA, FEMA and some carriers made similar announcements after the Virginia earthquake and during Hurricane Irene. But by then it was mostly too late. A public awareness campaign should be implemented now, before the next disaster strikes. That investment will serve taxpayers well.