Broadcasting News

A free system could help states and localities improve the way they alert responders and residents to emergencies.
November 2004
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

If an explosive were to go off in Washington, D.C.'s subway system, area residents would get word of it via radio, television or word of mouth. But what if the alert to a possible disaster on a major commuter route could pop up on cell phones, computers and BlackBerrys as well as on ATM screens, lottery-ticket dispensing machines, highway signs and gas and utility truck employee pagers? Clearly, more people would learn quickly about the event--and plan their actions accordingly.

The technology to do this exists now. It's even in use in non- emergency situations--connecting lost pets with their owners and disseminating information on environmental conditions. A privately financed program for hazard and emergency alerts is not quite ready for prime time, so states and localities aren't able to capitalize on it yet. Officials know, however, that they need to move their emergency-alert systems out of the radio era and into the digital age soon.

There are some signs of action in that direction. The Washington State Department of Information Services, for one, pilot-tested a system for finding missing children. In August, that program was put into action. A child went missing and in less than two hours television broadcasters were airing alert information activated by Seattle Police via the AMBER Alert Web Portal System. AMBER also relayed information to transportation departments so they could change road signs, to probation officers, transit authorities, border agents and citizens who had previously requested to be on the alert list. The child was found quickly and unharmed.

Previously, the state couldn't get the information out fast and wide enough for people to help law enforcement do its work. The manual process of faxing, calling and e-mailing limited the number of people who were notified during the crucial first hours--before a child snatcher could travel very far. There was no cost to Washington to link to AMBER, a system developed by a private company. More than a dozen states have now signed up to participate in AMBER--a system they didn't have to build and don't have to maintain.

AMBER allows people closest to an incident to enter the information themselves. That information is then pushed out only to those who would be affected by a particular incident. By limiting the information just to those who need or want to know it, the system reduces the "tired eye" syndrome. When people out of the area get too many alerts about incidents they can't help with, it tends to dull their response to pertinent warnings.

An "all hazards" alert system could be developed based on the AMBER technology, which has already proven itself in non-emergency applications. Ten thousand communities contribute practical environmental information to an "Earth 911" portal that the system runs. That information is then pushed out to those who need it or those who signed up for it. In Tucson, for example, residents who want to drop off used motor oil can go to the city Web site to find the closest recycling center that will accept the oil. The city Web site link is actually to the private company site, but residents don't see that. "It's like us having a system we don't have to do anything more than use," says Todd Sander, Tucson's CIO. "We have no technical or financial responsibility for it. It's magic."

New Jersey and most ocean states use a similar system for monitoring coastal water quality. If, say, a stormwater sewer overflows, an environmental agency employee can send out a message that a beach is shut down for the day. Residents or visitors who signed up for such alerts will get them as soon as the information is reported via the medium of their choice--e-mail, cell phone or fax--and can adjust their plans accordingly.

The National Association of State Chief Information Officers recently submitted a proposal to the Department of Homeland Security for federal, state and local governments to work together to build on the successes of the AMBER Alert portal technology. Information security officers are eager to get a tool like this for security warnings since few states have elaborate homeland security departments.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist |