- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008

Key lawmakers in the House and Senate say the Bush administration has failed to upgrade the nation’s emergency-alert system despite a two-year-old presidential order and a pledge by federal officials to have a new system working when hurricane season began last week.

“Far too many people are dying in disasters that could have been avoided with an effective warning system,” said Rep. Sam Graves, Missouri Republican and ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on economic development, public buildings and emergency management.

“In the first five months of this year alone, over 100 people were killed by tornados in the South, the Midwest, and my home state of Missouri,” Mr. Graves said. “This is simply unacceptable.”

An investigation by The Washington Times reported in February that nearly two years after Mr. Bush ordered a sweeping technological overhaul of the country’s early alerts for natural disasters and terrorist attacks, the new system had not been implemented as several federal agencies wrestled with technicalities such as “Common Alerting Protocols.”

Bush administration officials said in February the new system would be operational by this year’s hurricane season, which began June 1.

Martha T. Rainsville, assistant administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), told the subcommittee Wednesday that “we cannot do everything at once” and that the system will be developed in separate increments later this year.

The new emergency-alert system (EAS), called the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), is supposed to incorporate emergency alerts through television, radio and automatic telephone systems, Web sites, pagers, e-mails and cell phones.

Emergency warnings could be issued for terrorist attacks, dangerous weather and “Amber Alerts” for missing or abducted children.

“The EAS has served us well, but the reality is that it is based on technology that is 15 years old,” Miss Rainsville said.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C. Democrat, who presided over the subcommittee hearing, told The Washington Times on Friday she was not satisfied with progress on the executive order.

“I heard nothing to indicate they have developed a system that will perform better than a whistle,” Mrs. Norton said.

“We don’t see change or progress at all,” Mrs. Norton said. “I can’t say that I have confidence we are on our way to getting a new IPAWS system. We see a failed system.”

Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican and ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the nation’s warning systems continue to rely on 1950s technology.

“We have the technology to more effectively warn American citizens of disasters, but we either lack the legislative will or the administrative ability to get the job done,” Mr. Mica said.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and ranking member Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Tuesday asking for a “road map” on how and when the system will be completed.

“How the government communicates critical information during a disaster can literally mean the difference between life and death,” Mr. Lieberman said.

“Our nation’s alert system must reflect today’s technology,” Miss Collins added.

The Senate committee held a series of hearings in May on the nation’s ability to respond to a nuclear attack.

“As the hearing made clear, an enhanced public-alert capability is vital to disaster response,” the letter said.

The senators asked for “an update on steps the department has taken to implement the order and a road map for completing its remaining requirements.”

“In particular, please explain the progress FEMA has made in establishing a Common Alerting Protocol, including a timeline for future action.”

Laura Keehner, Homeland Security spokeswoman, said “considerable progress” has been made to develop the IPAWS system, but that it is a “large undertaking.”

“We are the first to admit we have more work to do, though we have made significant strides,” Miss Keehner said. “Secretary [Michael] Chertoff recently urged governors to pay attention to these public-alert systems and work with local entities to integrate them.”

In a May 23 letter from Mr. Chertoff to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the state was urged to use already allocated federal government grants to adopt a “Reverse 911” system that automatically calls residential landlines with recorded messages containing evacuation details and storm updates.

“During the 2007 hurricane season, we successfully demonstrated the capability to send a recorded alert message to up to 60,000 residential telephones in 10 minutes,” Mr. Chertoff wrote.

The system was tested in a pilot program last summer in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, and could be installed by early August at a cost of $2 million, Mr. Chertoff said.

However, a “bewildered” Mrs. Norton said a state-by-state effort is “the same patchwork that has gotten us so frustrated.”

She added: “We’re going back to sirens. Let’s blow a few whistles here to get started.”

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