A Comparison of Emergency Warning Systems

Posted by Judson L Moore

A November 2000 report published by the executive Subcommittee on Natural Disaster Reduction about Natural Disaster Information Systems, three different major disaster warning systems and their relative application and effectiveness were discussed.  These three were the NOAA Weather Radio, the Emergency Alert System, and GPS technology.

The NOAA Weather Radio is one of the few broad-range warning systems which is exclusively government-controlled and owned.  This system works by broadcasting a four to six-minute-long warning about weather hazards in a particular area and then looping it so that anyone can tune in and get the alert at any time.  This radio network is currently available in 90% of the United States but is hindered by the fact that one must own a specific type of radio to decode its signal.  One of the implications this executive committee would like to see happen is that all radios be made compatible with the NOAA signal to receive warnings from any radio at any time. Although the NOAA radio decoder can be purchased inexpensively, many people do not own one and do not listen to it, continually waiting for a warning.  Doing this would enable many more people to be reached in times of danger.  One other hope of the committee is that the system could be made ‘smart’ so that radios could decipher your location in relation to the threat’s pinpointed area and let you know which direction and what distance the threat is from you.

So why is the NOAA system one of the few exclusively government-owned and operating systems?  The answer is quite apparent, and that is the cost of communications networks.  There are so many networks already in place, to build another new one would be extremely expensive and take a long time to create.  For this reason, many warning systems are broadcast through privately owned networks like television and radio, but also include the internet, paging systems, cellular networks, and several others.  This public/private partnership is generally a good situation because the private industry is interested in taking care of its customers but can not originate a warning due to liability issues.  Allowing the government to issue notifications and then having them communicated over the private networks allows for personal interests to be protected from liability issues, warns everybody’s constituents, and is cost-effective for the government.

The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is one example of these public/private partnerships.  The EAS’s primary purpose is to allow a nation-wide communication level for the President of the United States to communicate with the nation in times of need.  Rarely, however, is it the President who uses this system.  More typically, this system is used to issue warnings about dangerous weather on television and radio stations.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandates that all radio and television stations are equipped with EAS deciphers and broadcasters.  The system automatically interrupts any signal produced from the station and transmitting a signal from NOAA or other governmental agency instead.

One problem with this system is that it is not selective in who it reaches.  If a television or radio station broadcasts over a vast area, the warning may only need to be received by a small percent of the listeners, but everybody hears it.  There is a significant concern with creating too much apathy by using this system too much when there isn’t a huge area that needs to get the message because people will stop paying attention to the warnings when they never experience a reason for it in the end.

Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems are becoming more and more effective and available to use a broad scope of applications.  Many businesses are starting to afford this technology and use it as a means to track vehicle positions, for example, in freight and trucking companies.  Geologists and Meteorologists can use GPS to determine changes in geographical features, like water levels along the coast during a hurricane or shifts in landmasses during earthquakes.  Being able to decide on the position of flood planes concerning where hurricanes make landfall is vital in accurately predicting who will be at the most risk of flooding.  GPS has an extensive scope of applications and can help determine the location and movement of virtually anything on a real-time basis.

During the incident of a chemical spill, there are three common scenarios.  The spill is either in a factory or plant (point of origin) where there are specialized staff and equipment to deal with the situation or in transit by water or roadway.  Suppose a chemical spill occurs within a production or refinery facility. In that case, there is a rehearsed procedure for dealing with the problem, and everyone in the area knows how to play out their role.  If the chemical spill occurs at sea, the warning needs to go out to the coast guard and appropriate governments in the affected area.  People should be taken off of beaches, and the waterway quarantined from civilian and non-rescue boats. 

If the incident occurs on a roadway, things get much more complicated.  Here, you are dealing with unfamiliar people with procedures and hazards and are not equipped to be close to them safely.  Roadways often are very busy with motorists, and interrupting traffic flow opens up another set of dangers that come with traffic jams.  To warn these people about what risks are on the roadway, it is best to employ local radio stations to make traffic alerts and send out CB-Radio alerts. Commercial truckers whose’ cargo may also be hazardous may try to avoid the area.  Most important is to get the message to just the people in the immediate area and the people coming to that area.  This could most effectively be accomplished using RBDS systems at the incident scene, which can transmit warnings with a range of just a mile or fraction of a mile, depending on what may be most appropriate.

Judson L Moore
Judson L Moore

Travel addict. Ambitious about making the world a better place. Writing what I learn along the way.

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