- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Federal homeland security officials yesterday tested in Arlington a digital emergency alert system involving cell phones — a departure from the government’s plan of shutting down cell-phone service to thwart threats of terrorism.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), under the Department of Homeland Security, and the Association of America’s Public Television Stations (APTS) yesterday tested the alert system on local public-television station WETA after two six-month testing phases.

The pilot project aims to show how the use of local public television’s digital broadcasts can expedite public alerts and warnings during national crises.

Officials expect to have the system working by the end of next year.

“Digital capabilities will improve the reliability, flexibility and security of the emergency alert system,” FEMA Director R. David Paulison said. “This more-efficient system will better serve first-responders and government officials, as well as provide the American public timely information so they can safeguard themselves and loved ones in times of emergencies.”

APTS teamed with FEMA to improve the nation’s alert and warning system. The program transmits the alerts to networks, including wireless devices, cable TV channels, satellite radio and traditional broadcast outlets.

However, the system appears to be out of synch with federal plans to cut cell-phone service in the D.C. area during a terrorist attack.

Local officials criticized the tactic — intended to prevent terrorists from using cell phones to detonate remote explosive devices — saying such measures could hamper the efforts of first-responders.

Last July, authorities in New York shut off cell-phone service to two Manhattan tunnels and two others linking the city to New Jersey in response to bomb attacks in London that killed more than 50 people.

FEMA directed inquiries to the Department of Homeland Security, which did not return calls yesterday afternoon.

APTS demonstrated the capabilities of digital broadcasting through a two-year project in the national capital region. The initial phases of this project included WETA, PBS and 25 other public television stations in the country.

APTS President John Lawson said the alert system is for “the mobile, networked and digital America of the 21st century.”

“The current [system] has it roots in the Cold War, and still relies on technology from that era,” he said. “You had to be watching one of the major networks or listening to a radio station to have a chance of receiving the alert.”

The pilot program was conducted in conjunction with simultaneous events at public television stations across the country.

“Public service is in the DNA of public television,” Mr. Lawson said. “Digital television is allowing us to roll out a new generation of content and services for the American people. We’ve always been about enhancing lives. Now we can help save lives, as well.”

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