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FEMA tests digital alert system

Technology will send messages to wireless devices, radio, TV and the Internet

By Dibya Sarkar
Published on April 11, 2005

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In an attempt to expand the nation's alert and warning system, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials are testing digital technology that can transmit text, voice and video messages simultaneously to wireless devices, radios, televisions and the Internet.

In early February, government officials successfully transmitted a text message to participating cellular, TV, Internet and radio providers who volunteered to participate in the test. In March, FEMA officials broadcast a bottomless audio message — a voice message of unlimited length — in the same manner. This month, they plan to test video streaming.

FEMA, which is part of the Homeland Security Department, is partnering with several agencies on the initiative, called the Digital Emergency Alert System pilot, part of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning initiative. The pilot, which is being conducted in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, is testing IP datacasting technology.

"What we want to do is almost a crawl, walk, run approach to this," said Reynold Hoover, director of FEMA's Office of National Security Coordination, referring to the series of tests. In each case, he said, FEMA officials are asking participants to provide feedback on how well they received the message, whether it was in the right format and whether they were able to re-transmit the message to their customers.

The one-year test project could determine how the president transmits future messages nationwide during a widespread emergency. But state and local emergency officials could use the digital technology on a daily basis to target encrypted, nearly instantaneous messages at authorized individuals in certain regions during emergencies.

During the tests, FEMA officials sent a digitally encoded alert and warning message to a public TV station, WETA, in Northern Virginia. In turn, WETA officials sent the message from their digital transmitter to participating companies, which were equipped with antennae and receivers hooked up to computers with commercial software. The messages were sent using the Common Alerting Protocol, an open standard for exchanging hazard warnings and reports.

With the software, the recipients — whether a TV station, cellular phone company, radio station or Internet service provider — were able to strip from the message what they could use for their particular medium and retransmit it to their customers.

During the text-message pilot in February, T-Mobile officials took the test a step further. They devised a way to automatically take the message, which contained fewer than 160 characters, and move it into their Short Message Service capability, retransmitting the message to selected handsets. T-Mobile was the only participating cellular carrier to do so.

"My handset was one of them," said Gary Jones, T-Mobile's director of standards policy. "I was actually in a meeting in Geneva, so it works anywhere in the world."

Jones said T-Mobile's messaging capability is designed to be a point-to-point messaging system, meaning it can send a single message to a single handset. It was never meant to be a broadcast service, such as radio or television. He said industry leaders are considering the best ways to meet the government's needs during an emergency.

"Part of the test is to explore what type of technology [can be employed and] how can we send lots of messages to lots of handsets," he said. "That exploration is ongoing."

By law, the national Emergency Alert System (EAS) reaches 95 percent of the population mainly through TV and radio broadcasts, Hoover said. But not everyone has a television or radio or is constantly watching or listening to them.

"By transitioning to this datacasting technology, you'll get that message if you've got a cell phone or a pager or a [Research in Motion] BlackBerry, or you're sitting on your computer or on your home telephone for that matter," Hoover said. "We think that the capability and reach will not be 100 percent but certainly approaching that."

Mark Erstling, chief operating officer at the Association of Public Television Stations, which is working with FEMA on the tests, said the Public Broadcasting System also transmits the messages via its satellite interconnection system. Stations in the region and others receive those messages, test them to ensure they are intact and then redistribute them, he said.

Representatives from the nonprofit association, which has more than 300 member stations, approached Hoover about using datacasting technology about a year ago, Erstling said. They reached an agreement by the end of last summer and announced the project in October 2004. Various manufacturers loaned the equipment for the tests. Officials said the receivers cost about $300 each.

A majority of public TV stations are broadcasting digitally, and datacasting is an easy transition to make, Erstling said. Several, such as Kentucky's public TV system, discovered that sending messages to public safety agencies using digital technology takes only a few seconds. The old technology took at least seven minutes, he added.

"We can do that in the variety of capabilities in the digital world, and you don't have to worry about it getting jammed up," Erstling said.

Several states, such as Pennsylvania and Florida, have built statewide emergency alert systems. Hoover said datacasting would augment those capabilities, not supplant their distribution system.

Officials said they're unsure how much it will cost to implement the technology nationwide, but using open architecture, nonproprietary technology and commercial software reduces costs significantly. They will deploy the distribution infrastructure nationwide once the tests have been completed and assessed and money is available.

Hoover said federal government officials allotted a total of $22 million in fiscal 2004 and 2005 for all alert and warning projects, including taking the digital capability nationwide and upgrading the EAS satellite and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's all-hazards radio network, among other projects.

"We haven't really addressed what would be the private-sector cost as we do this," he said. "I'd be hesitant to say what that might be. I would suggest that it's probably minimal."



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