The media and broadcast in the US are highly valued partners in disseminating information and warnings about all hazards in a way that isn’t apparent in Australia.
There are three elements on which the partnerships are based which serve the US well – legislation, obligation and co-operation. All three are, to some extent, missing from the landscape in Australia.
The US set up CONtrol of ELectromagnetic RADiation, or CONELRAD (1951 – 1963), and the Emergency Broadcast System, or EBS (1963 – 1997) to deal with the threat posed by the Cold War. Legislation was passed which compelled radio stations to participate in the program at their own cost, and to ensure they could carry all Presidential level warnings and addresses.
“It is a condition of their licence agreement now that TV and radio broadcast companies serve the public interest,” says Manny Centeno, the Program Manager of the Integrated Public Alert and Warnings system with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “They are using public airwaves, the public owns them.”
Jim Bremer, the program director at KQMS Newstalk Radio backs up the observation, ”We’re licensed to serve the public.”
Jim Bremer, EP at KQMS Reading
In 1997, the EBS modernised into the Emergency Alert System, or EAS, and in 2006 President Bush issued Executive Order 13047, which required that an Integrated Public Alert and Warning System be built. The legislation was changed to enable the system to be used by state and county agencies to alert their community to potential hazards. In all counties now the system is used frequently to alert the community to weather hazards, and “AMBER alerts“ – notifications of recent child abductions.
The Commercial Mobile Alert System is one of several systems within IPAWS. The Commercial Mobile Service Providers’ decision to broadcast alerts and warnings is voluntary. “We have 400 telecommunications providers in the US, and within a few months of the process being set up, we already have over 100 providers who’ve opted in,” said Manny Centeno.”
The cost to send these alerts: “Nothing at all, they do it voluntarily.”
Phone companies will receive alerts via the IPAWS Open Platform for Emergency Networks, or IPAWS-OPEN, and then broadcast them to the public in areas which have been geo-targeted by emergency alerting authorities.
To ensure the process is smooth, the Federal Communications Commission and FEMA set standards and protocols, developed a common operating system for emergency agencies and provide training. The FCC requires a monthly test of the system.
In addition, the National Weather Service was provided with funding to set up its own radio network – the National Weather Radio. With more than 1100 transmitters, it’s a robust and comprehensive system, which has come to be relied upon by a sizeable proportion of the US community.
Legislation alone cannot compel organisations to ensure that all aspects of their content meet the requirements of Federal Government or the needs of their communities. Only the “Presidential Address” is obligatory, all other warning content is carried voluntarily. But the competitive nature of the private sector has ensured that all participants feel obliged to participate. The telecommunications companies created demand for phone handsets that are warning compatible.
The radio and TV stations know that in an emergency their competitors will be broadcasting warnings, and they can’t afford to ignore the possible impact on their audience reach.
TV stations play the most important role, with weather presenters being the go-to people when an emergency begins. TV watching seems to be universal. Homes, clubs, bars, restaurants, schools, public gathering places like airports all seem to have TV networks switched on 24/7.
Jim Bremer from KQMS estimates that his company spends $20,000 on the hardware to receive EAS content, and there are numerous stations in his comparatively small company.
“Tremendous private sector involvement is the key to the success of CMAS and EAS,” says Wade Witmer, FEMA’s Deputy Director of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.
There is no doubt that emergency managers are grateful for the support they are receiving from broadcasters.
But to ensure the process is integrated, there has to be high level and frequent co-operation. FEMA and the Federal Communication Commission have a monthly meeting with national broadcasters and telecommunications companies, to ensure the systems remain technically robust and to create a standard for sharing of information between emergency agencies and the disseminators.
“You have to engage the broadcasters. A lot of them don’t trust each other” says Manny Centeno, in a phrase that will resonate with broadcasters and emergency agencies everywhere. “But some broadcasters do call themselves first responders, which shows they are fully engaged.”
In addition to the nationwide meetings, each state has a meeting of State broadcasters and their emergency management agencies each month.
The National Weather Service also reflects the expectation that there will be leadership and co-operation. Warnings’ broadcasters meet their local and regional broadcasters frequently to extend understanding. Additionally, the NWS set up NWSchat, to talk directly to broadcasters to ensure their message is well understood and useful.
Howard Price, the emergency manager at the American Broadcast Corporation, which runs radio and TV stations and networks across the US, sums up the three elements nicely: “It’s about public interest, convenience and necessity.” The public interest is obvious but why convenience? “Because FEMA, NWS and FCC created the platforms which we plug into to receive all the warnings and content.” Necessity? “That’s just competition to retain listenership and audience.”
The partnership model was started by the private sector. “Richard Rudman, the Director of Engineering at CBS started the “Partnership for Public Warning” says Howard Price. “We also started the Media Security and Advisory Council after 9/11. During Hurricane Katrina, Entercom, which owns one of their local stations never went off air. They set the gold standard for emergency broadcasting.”
Howard Price is proud of the role the broadcasters play in issuing warnings and information in the US. “EAS is a good system, but it has to be defended, and the local stations have to practice using it. The total cost for ABC to implement the mandatory system on its own network runs to five figures, and no-one here has ever suggested the Government should pay.”
Nevertheless the companies retain editorial control. “We put warnings on every station. It’s good for the warnings to be on during kids watching time as their parents are often watching with them. But the ABC never puts an unverified warning to air. No talk station in their right mind will do that.”
Charles W. McCobb
IPAWS Program Office /NCP