- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2008


The government’s continuing inability to create an integrated Emergency Alert System is a classic failure of federal coordination. The money, technology and executive authority are each largely or completely in their place. The need is clear after disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the September 11 terror attacks. But too many federal authorities have pulled this system in too many competing directions for an effective outcome. Now, two years after President Bush ordered a modernization, the consequences of failure are evident in the aftermath of this month’s tornadoes in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee. The critical national security task of alerting Americans to potential life-threatening disasters is bogged down in alphabet-soup, and it is unconscionable that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and the Democratic and Republican leadership have yet to set things straight.

Fifty-seven tornado-related deaths occurred in those four states on Feb. 5-6. At least 38 occurred in areas that lacked even basic civil defense sirens familiar from the Cold War era, as Audrey Hudson of The Washington Times reported yesterday in a must-read investigation of the early warning system. Some unknown number of these deaths would have been prevented had an effective system been in place. This story, mostly overlooked because it occurred on Super Tuesday and immediately afterward, is the evidence to spur federal agencies into action. The Department of Homeland Security and its Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Communications Commission are the agencies of focus. Congress should begin more effective oversight to ensure a system that is “durable, reliable and always on,” as Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson rightly puts it.

In June 2006, President Bush called for a revamped system that would incorporate new technologies. It would switch televisions and radios automatically to broadcast warnings — the emergency warnings familiar to most every American — but the new system would also dial automated calls to telephones and send text messages to cell phone and Blackberries in affected areas. But it is bogged down in bureaucratic indecision.

The problems lie in two broad areas: (1) the present system is fragmented among half a dozen federal agencies; and (2) decision-making regarding the new system is also dispersed across government agencies. The Department of Homeland Security is in charge of combining the presidential alert system, Amber Alerts and National Weather Service advisories. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, which is part of DHS, is tasked with developing Common Alert Protocols. Both the FCC and NOAA cite FEMA inaction as the roadblock for their tasks of state and local coordination.

When the federal government’s left hand fails to talk to its right, the consequences are disastrous — as first the hurricanes and then the tornadoes reflect. A functioning, comprehensive early warning system must be vigorously pursued.

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