How the Emergency Alert System has already been tested--and could be improved |

How the Emergency Alert System has already been tested--and could be improved

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You've probably heard by now that today at 2 p.m., there will be the first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System, which allows the president to address the American public within 10 minutes from any location at any time.

But this Cold War era system has already been outpaced. It will air on every broadcast, cable, and satellite TV station in the US. You'll hear it on any AM, FM, or satellite radio station. But where will you be at 2 p.m. today? Are you usually listening to the radio or watching TV in the middle of the usual work day hours?

Now how did you hear about the test? Twitter or Facebook? An email or text? The Emergency Alert System doesn't (yet) go those places.

How did you hear about the Virginia earthquake felt up and down the east coast back in August? When the rumbling began, someone sitting near me asked, "Is this an earthquake?" and my first instinct wasn't to go to a news site or national alert service--I searched Twitter for "earthquake." "Looks like it," I replied. The quake lasted long enough that it all happened while our desks were still shaking. It was felt far and wide enough that for some people, xkcd came true.

I don't mean to discount the role that these more traditional broadcast media can play in an emergency. And there is indeed an audience they will reach that social media and connected technologies won't. But the US has 240 million Internet users--approaching 80% of the population. That's a lot of people to ignore.

How could collaboration with the places people gather today--online--change the efficacy of the alert system? The top five sites on Alexa are Google, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo! and Wikipedia. What if we had a 21st century emergency alert where, rather than putting the president on TV for two minutes, we could with one message:

  • Change the Google logo (as they often do) to a recognizable emergency alert linking to further information, perhaps...
  • A YouTube video--the same content the president would also be broadcasting on television and radio. Of course, it would also be the main video shown on the YouTube homepage.
  • Put top post on everyone's Facebook feed about the emergency.
  • Replace the Yahoo! homepage with links to the YouTube video and text versions of the information
  • Replace the nearly ubquitious "plea from Jimmy Wales" banner on Wikipedia with an emergency alert notice.

The message could potentially be limited to the appropriate geography by IP address.

Do you have other ideas for a better Emergency Alert System?

About the author

Ruth Suehle - Ruth Suehle is the community leadership manager for Red Hat's Open Source and Standards team. She's co-author of Raspberry Pi Hacks (O'Reilly, December 2013) and a senior editor at GeekMom, a site for those who find their joy in both geekery and...