A failure to test and modernize the U.S. emergency alert system leaves doubt whether the president would be able to communicate with the American people during a terrorist attack or natural disaster, congressional investigators said Thursday.
A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) described the existing Emergency Alert System (EAS) as “antiquated” and “unreliable” and said that eight years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has made only “limited progress” in creating a system to replace it.
“Specifically, a lack of training and national-level testing raises questions about whether the relay system would actually work during a national-level emergency,” said the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.
FEMA last tested the system, which uses radio and television stations to relay emergency information or a message from the president, during an earlier GAO investigation in 2007. Three of the 35 primary television stations failed to receive and rebroadcast the message because of hardware and software issues at that time, the report said.
“FEMA has not held another test since 2007,” the report said. “In addition, FEMA has no plans for testing the relay distribution system.”
“Consequently, there is no assurance the national-level relay would work should the president need to activate EAS to communicate with the American people,” the report said.
The report was released three years after an executive order by President George W. Bush called for a sweeping technological overhaul of the country’s alerts for natural disasters and terrorist attacks.
In February 2008, an investigation by The Washington Times found that the new system, called the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), had not been implemented as several federal agencies, including FEMA, continued to wrangle over technicalities.
“Little progress has been made in achieving the objectives of Executive Order 13407,” the GAO report said.
In response to the report, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, said it generally concurred with the oversight agency’s findings and pledged to conduct more testing and training and provide regular reports to Congress.
“We will work with the Federal Communications Commission to define ways to enforce new testing procedures without placing an undue burden on industry,” the Homeland Security Department said in its response.
A significant “operational weakness” is that the present system transmits through weaker signals during the daylight hours, and FEMA estimates it can reach 75 percent of the population during the day, as opposed to 82 percent after dark.
IPAWS was initiated in 2004 and was intended to integrate the EAS with new technology, “however national-level alert capabilities have remained unchanged and new technologies have not been adopted,” the report said.
The proposed system would include innovative ways to communicate with the deaf and disabled, would use cell phones and text messaging, and would target the alerts to certain geographic areas.
“IPAWS’ efforts have been affected by shifting program goals, lack of continuity in planning, staff turnover, and poorly organized program information from which to make management decisions,” the report said.
“Effective public warning depends on the cooperation of stakeholders, such as emergency managers and the telecommunications industry, yet many stakeholders GAO contacted knew little about IPAWS and expressed the need for better coordination with FEMA,” the report said.
FEMA also conducted a series of pilot programs, but failed to analyze its effectiveness, the report said.