As emergency notification evolves, broadcasting loses clout

This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast SystemEvery child of the television era (and radio) is familiar with that weekly interruption of programming for a “test of the emergency broadcast system.” The image on the right is just one example of how television stations dealt with it. The EBS was replaced in 1997 with the “Emergency Alert System,” an ominous harbinger of the media disruption and an important milestone in the shift from a broadcast paradigm to the hyperconnectivity of the Web.

According to Wikipedia, the nuclear threat was the issue for the EBS. The system was created in 1963 to replace the old CONALRAD system and was expanded later to include natural disasters and emergencies.

Although the system was never used for a national emergency, it was activated more than 20,000 times between 1976 and 1996 to broadcast civil emergency messages and warnings of severe weather hazards. Some dramatic works depicting nuclear warfare (most notably the 1983 made-for-TV film The Day After) included fictionalized scenes of EBS activations. Occasionally the EBS would be shown in fictionalized use for events other than nuclear warfare, such as the 1978 film Dawn of the Dead.

The words of the test are forever implanted in my head. “This is a test. For the next sixty seconds, this station will conduct a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test.” And the conclusion: “If this had been an actual emergency, you would have been instructed to tune to one of the broadcast stations in your area.” There were many variations, of course, but these words formed the gist of a memorable old friend from the 60s.

The EBS was an important era for broadcasters of every ilk, for as far as the government was concerned (the FCC), the airwaves were vital to the defense of the country. What a heady and significant position for broadcasters within the hierarchy that actually governed the country and local communities.

All that changed in 1997 when the Emergency Alert System was born. The EAS is a part of IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System) and run jointly by FEMA, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the National Weather Service (NWS). According to Wikipedia, the EAS enables the President to speak to the public within ten minutes. It has never been activated and each state has its own EAS plan.

The EAS covers AM, FM and Land Mobile Radio Service, as well as VHF, UHF and cable television including low-power stations. Digital television and cable providers, along with Sirius XM satellite radio, IBOC, DAB and digital radio broadcasters have been required to participate in the EAS since December 31, 2006…DirecTV, Dish Network and all other DBS providers have been required to participate since May 31, 2007.

While this still includes broadcasters — they’re still clearly VERY important — the addition of all these other players weakens the nature of the authority, and, frankly, the importance, of broadcasters in the hierarchy that runs the country. Beginning in 1997, the broadcast empire lost some of its significance within the decision-making process that involves the private use of our public airwaves, and, like the proverbial frog in the water pot, it continues to drift in that direction.

According to a 19-page report obtained this week by The Associated Press, the federal government is now considering the use of Twitter and Facebook in the dissemination of warnings to the public. The two sites are mentioned several times in the report from the Department of Homeland Security, according to The Register:

… terrorism alerts would be published over the two sites “when appropriate.” The alerts would go public only after federal, state, and local officials had already been notified.

The Twitter and Facebook alerts are just one change discussed in the plan, which a DHS spokeswoman said is not yet final. According to the AP, terror alerts would have just two levels of warning: elevated and imminent. The new designations would replace the current five color-coded levels, which have become a regular staple of ridicule among late-night comedians.

This reflects a continued drift to tools of the network in order to keep people informed, and it’s one of the key things I follow to determine the long-term health of the broadcast world. That’s because the airwaves are controlled by the federal government, and right now, they want them for high speed broadband. Every time broadcasting’s place within the paradigm of community safety drops a notch, it weakens the clout of those fighting on behalf of the “old” players within the space. It is a much more predictable harbinger of events to come than anything else, and the day will come when broadcast companies will distribute their wares via hard wire or broadband and not “over-the-air” as we knew it in the 20th Century.

It may be a long time coming, but the die is cast.


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