Emergency alerts have come a long way since the days of the two-tone EAS signal. Today’s warnings come a lot faster, through multiple channels and in several languages. But as good as the current system is, there’s always room for improvement.
One event that has been missing from the alert palette is earthquakes. That’s changing.
Matthew Straeb, executive vice president of Global Security Systems/AlertFM, spoke at this year’s spring NAB Show. He gave a progress report on efforts to implement an early warning alert system on the West Coast of the United States, and why GSS believes the FM-based Radio Data System, used with a satellite backbone, can play an important role.
Early earthquake warning or EEW systems have been used for several years. Mexico City has had one since 1991. Japan has had a nationwide public warning system since 2007. There are systems in Istanbul, Turkey, Bucharest, Romania, China, Italy, and Taiwan. Earthquake effects travel through the ground slowly enough to provide some warning, if installed sensors can pick up the activity; warnings of even a few seconds to a minute could help save countless lives.
A system called ShakeAlert (www.shakealert.org) is being developed and tested for the West Coast by the U.S. Geological Survey, part of the Department of the Interior, with a group of university partners. The state of California is involved, as are entities like GSS, Bay Area Rapid Transit, Universal Studios/NBC, UC Berkeley OEP and Southern California Edison.
Straeb says ShakeAlert relies on a system of seismic sensors dug deep into the ground and placed across a wide area. This network sends data to a central site where ground motion signals are analyzed, earthquakes are detected and warnings are issued. ShakeAlert can give an alert 20 seconds prior to the arrival of a destructive wave — by sensing the p-wave or felt seismic waves, which arrive prior to the s-wave or damaging seismic wave.
Work began on that project in 2006, when initial research studies were done. January of 2012 saw a live demonstration, and a production prototype recently was released. This year, the ShakeAlert network rolled out on a limited basis with 400 seismic stations. Additional investment in sensors, communications infrastructure, software development and operations personnel will be required to create a robust public system.
Straeb said there are several federal funding initiatives to continue building the seismic stations and streamline the algorithms to provide faster and accurate shaking intensity and location data.
GSS/Alert FM, he said, provides “dedicated, purpose-built dissemination,” using a satellite delivery backbone, of earthquake early warning information to end users including citizens and public/private entities. It offers RDS-based alert services to government emergency managers; it installs encoding gear at partner FM radio stations (currently some 585 in the country); and it sells alert receivers to institutions and consumers.
Straeb argues that existing, traditional mass messaging technologies are too slow to take full advantage of EEW.
Although convenient and useful, neither the cellular industry’s Wireless Emergency System nor the familiar Emergency Alert System is “purpose built;” they use Internet delivery as their backbone, he says. Their underlying platforms were created for commercial purposes to generate revenue and, although provided as a generous benefit to the U.S. government and citizens, the alerts piggyback on those networks. Thus typical WEA alert messages are delayed until a user finishes a wireless phone call, and EAS rules allow typical alert messages to be delayed if a song or commercial is playing.
“To meet the minimum requirements of the FCC, broadcasters have to do the following: Send a weekly test, relay the monthly test and relay the presidential messages,” he said. “The majority of radio broadcasters are committed to working with the emergency management officials to deliver other life-saving EAS messages in a timely manner; but it can be uneven from state to state.”
By contrast, the broadcast-based RDS network is a dedicated, “purpose-built” network that reaches most Americans, and can deliver alerts with the speed needed in earthquake situations.
A dedicated RDS text can deliver a rapid alert EEW text message in less than six seconds as tested by USGS in the L.A. Basin, he said. That would provide roughly 14 seconds of notice, and possibly more, based on ShakeAlert’s promise of 20 seconds total warning.
Straeb said the rapid response time of a dedicated RDS system also can enable alerts for other natural disasters such as tsunamis and tornadoes. So RDS, he argues, should play a key role as emergency managers build infrastructure around the new ShakeAlert sensor data.
Tornadoes are another time-sensitive alert; prediction by weather companies has improved dramatically with the advent of lightning detection networks that play a role in tornado detection. Sensor networks and prediction models are improving, Straeb said, driving the need for purpose-built alert networks whose only job is to delivery time-committed alerts. But the cost is prohibitive unless planners leverage existing communication assets, such as the radio broadcast-based platform using RDS or other data channels, he said.
INTERNET OF THINGS
EEW alerts are distributed to two user categories. The first, a local population, is informed through channels such as RDS, mobile devices and sirens. The second is the “Internet of things,” which includes automated, situation-aware decision-making devices. This category would include building automation systems, which could stop elevators and disconnect non-essential electrical circuits before the shock wave arrives.
“The development of such systems represents a large growth opportunity, and private partners can develop these user-specific applications,” Straeb said. In the case of his company’s product AlertFM, code is made available license-free to consumer electronics manufacturers who want to have RDS-based EEW alerts embedded in their products.
What can be done with a few seconds’ warning? People can move away from hazardous areas, drop, cover and hold on. Trains can be slowed or stopped, delicate medical procedures can be secured, as can vulnerable machinery. First responders in the field can be alerted to retreat temporarily to safe spaces. Takeoffs and landings can be delayed at airports. Pipelines can be closed to reduce the chance of spills, and emergency generators can be started. Fire stations can make sure their bay doors are open before a quake damages them.
While about 98 percent of alert messages are automated, there needs to be a way for emergency managers to send messages as well, particularly after a disaster. GSS offers a system that provides a checkbox-based interface with contact paths, alert options, attachments and maps.
In his NAB presentation he described a pilot project involving GSS AlertFM, KQED San Francisco and Univision in Los Angeles. He said that a research and development project with the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed the ability of RDS to provide rapid delivery via the GSS network.
The GSS system offers unique features, he continued. “When the system receives an EEW alert, it sends a lightweight CAP message, and along with the alert payload, it sends nine geocoded pairs of latitude-longitude data. On the receive end, these data points can be decoded to produce a polygon-based alert that combines with applications such as Google Maps to display the location of an alert on tablets and cell phones.”
In sum, the broadcast RDS system has many advantages for delivering timely emergency alerts, he said. “It piggybacks on the existing FM radio network; it provides nationwide coverage with no message fee; and the combination of satellite and Internet delivery to stations ensures the message can be delivered within six seconds.”
For broadcasters, there are advantages to partnering with a rapid alerting RDS system.
“It does not impede the regular flow of RDS messages such as artist and song title, or disrupt traffic data, as proven with dozens of radio stations operating with multiple RDS services and maintaining contractual agreements to provide percentage of the RDS bandwidth at any given time,” he said. “Alerts are infrequent; and since the RDS data groups are dynamically changed, a disruption of other RDS service does not occur. It provides a competitive advantage, as stations can promote that they’re on the cutting edge of emergency notification. And it solidly demonstrates to the FCC that the station has a commitment to serving the public.”
There are many ways to distribute alerts for normal day-to-day events such as Amber, weather and locally generated messages. However, technology now allows earthquake and lightning/tornado sensor networks to predict events in seconds. This, he says, offers broadcasters a unique opportunity to save lives with rapid alerts, which should fit well with the philosophy of local stations that wish to emphasize their role as “first informers.”
“Radio broadcasters strongly support EAS and RDS delivery of alerts on purpose-built system such as AlertFM,” Straeb said. “We appreciate the support and encouragement of the NAB, FEMA IPAWS office, the National Alliance of State Broadcast Associations and FM radio broadcasters to support and participate with the RDS delivery of alerts by offering their stations to be part of this nationwide network.”