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Lawmakers on Thursday discussed ways to expand the Emergency Alert System by incorporating new communication devices such as wireless phones, BlackBerrys and the Internet.
Expanding the alert network must be handled carefully, said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., sponsor of H.R. 5785, the Shimkus-Wynn Warning, Alert, and Response Network Act.
The bill would devote $106 million to expand the alert network and help coordinate a variety of government efforts to improve the systems. The FCC is considering ways to improve the system; this month, President Bush issued an executive order calling for an “effective, reliable, integrated, flexible and comprehensive system to alert and warn the American people.”
Shimkus said, “During major events where we can give people warning and it’s coming down the pike, we ought to use all the technology available, and we shouldn’t hinder new technological development by dictating what that technology should be.” He spoke during the House Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee hearing on the WARN Act.
“We need to make sure that those who make those decisions have been well trained, so you don’t get the ‘cry wolf’ syndrome and people disregard the alerts.”
With many agencies poised to issue alerts – from the Department of Homeland Security to the National Weather Service – Christopher Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Cellular Telecommunications and the Internet Association, said a single organization must act as an “aggregator” to coordinate warnings.
Several witnesses and members of Congress said expansion of the network should be mandatory, not voluntary. But Shimkus pointed out that some areas still don’t have basic 911 coverage, and mandates could undercut free market incentives to improve the network.
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., a licensed ham radio operator and the only radio station owner in Congress, urged industry to consider amateur radio operators as a resource for the new digital EAS.
Association of Public Television Stations President/CEO John Lawson coordinated a demo of a new “Digital EAS” system crafted for the Washington metropolitan area using public television stations as the backbone. Washington-based XM Satellite Radio and WTOP(AM) were also able to receive and re-transmit the alerts, he said. Text message versions of the alerts were also sent to the cellphones or PDAs of several lawmakers at the same time.