Satellites Ready to Alert and Warn

By | April 1, 2007 | Government, Supplement

The cluster of storms that left a path of destruction across central Florida in early February again brings into focus the true status of alerts and warning systems throughout the United States. Many states have been in the process of adding an additional layer of security in the form of a satellite-enabled alerts and warnings solution, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are using satellites to upgrade existing national alerts and warnings networks.

The National Alert and Warning System (NAWAS) was created by the Civil Defense Act of 1950 to rapidly notify emergency management officials of a threatened or impending attack or accidental missile launch on the United States, says Kevin Biesecker, program analyst at the FEMA Office of National Security Coordination, which serves as the program manager for the executive agent of the national level Emergency Alert System (EAS). Today, the NAWAS has been expanded and now supports a rapid and effective response to natural and technological disasters as part of FEMA’s primary emphasis on an “all-hazard approach” to emergency management, says Biesecker.

When directed by the President, FEMA activates the national level EAS and informs state and local governments of the activation over the NAWAS, which Biesecker describes as, “a special purpose phone system that provides a voice communications capability suited for disseminating warnings to federal, state and local government agencies. State and local government personnel are encouraged to use [the National Alert and Warning System] for coordination when it is not being used for national level [Emergency Alert System] messages,” he says.

Plans call for the NAWAS to be expanded and upgraded with technology that also is backward compatible with the existing system. “Upgrades to [the National Alert and Warning System] will enhance capabilities to facilitate collaboration, dissemination and tracking of alert and warning messages,” says Biesecker. The system “will incorporate network upgrades that will improve system addressability, usability, reliability, survivability and security.”

In 2007, the system will be expanded to include all counties in Florida and Pennsylvania. Additionally, selected sites in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana will begin testing upgraded systems using redundant landline and/or Internet Protocol (IP) and VSAT satellite-based distribution networks.

DEAS Becoming A Reality

Along with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric weather radio network, the EAS has served for years as the public alert and warning system in the United States. The President is the sole activator of the national-level alert system. With the federal mandate to transition all TV broadcasting to digital in 2009, the Association of Public Television Stations and Department of Homeland Security have partnered to create a Digital Emergency Alert System (DEAS).

Using existing satellite and new datacasting technology, the digital public TV backbone will reach a network of networks to deliver instant DEAS warnings to any location at any time, says an FCC spokesman. Satellite-enabled DEAS signals to all public TV stations will trigger information flows to local first responders and the public while also allowing for the instantaneous issuing of critical information to emergency managers and other state officials during times of national crisis through the use of local public TV digital infrastructure. “Initially, this will be a government to government and a government to media system. Eventually, it will be a warning system for all hazards that can reach practically all devices,” says the spokesman. “Whether someone has their cellphone at a kid’s soccer match, is listening to satellite or broadcast radio, surfing the Internet, or watching any of the 500 channels on TV, [the Department of Homeland Security] can get an emergency message to the vast majority of Americans almost instantaneously.”

A pair of six-month testing phases of the DEAS were completed last year. Phase 2 tests demonstrated an improved mechanism for distributing messages via digital TV and satellite to an expanded range of retransmission media. This involved encrypted test messages which were received, uploaded and then rapidly distributed over the PBS satellite system to 24 local public TV stations in different states. As the test data was passed through the PBS satellite interconnection system, all 24 stations received and verified that the encrypted data was transmitted successfully.

“Right now, the existing [Emergency Alert System] is voluntary, and the big question is when and if the FCC will mandate that [the Digital Emergency Alert System] be implemented after 2009. Funding the equipment and the whole datacasting module, including servers, backups and PC cards at an estimated cost of $300,000 to $400,000 per station, is the biggest obstacle,” says Tristan Richards, director of operations at Maine Public Broadcasting Network.

When fully operational, the DEAS will alert emergency managers and state officials via broadcast and cable television and terrestrial and other wireless networks such as cell phones and PDAs. As of Dec. 31, satellite digital audio radio service (SDARS) providers also were required to distribute alerts.

“We believe that satellite radio will serve an increasingly important role in the delivery of alerts and warnings to the public prior to and during disasters as we move forward in our efforts to ensure that Americans have accurate, timely and consistent information to take appropriate action to protect their families and themselves,” says the FCC spokesman. The Commission strongly encouraged [satellite radio] licensees to have the ability to receive [Emergency Alert System] alerts from state and local emergency managers and the ability to disseminate state and local [Emergency Alert System] warnings on local traffic and weather channels that the [satellite radio] licensees provide.”

Direct broadcast satellite service providers will be subject to Emergency Alert System broadcast requirements effective May 31. Questions regarding provider participation in state and local alerts are currently pending before the Commission. “We are on target to meet the deadline to implement presidential [Emergency Alert System] alerts. However, given our national platform, we have technical limitations regarding our ability to implement state and local alerts,” says Robert Mercer, a spokesman for DirecTV Inc.

States Making Own Plans

Despite this uptick in activity and the planned migration to the DEAS, a growing number of states are deploying their own satellite-based emergency alerts, warnings and notification systems. For example, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency has deployed the Comlabs Emergency Management Network (EMNet) system to replace the legacy terrestrial teletype-based networks deemed too fragile and much susceptible to widespread failures during periods of disaster. EMNet provides direct connectivity to 372 terminals statewide located at commercial TV and radio stations, 62 cable TV company locations throughout the commonwealth and all county 911 centers.

In 2003, Illinois began a program to install a secure satellite-based communications system using EMNet that will link the state emergency operations center with Chicago and the six collar counties that surround the city. The original pilot installation was tested during the federal terrorism exercise, Top Officials 2. During this Congressionally-mandated national terrorism exercise, the effectiveness of the system was proven, which lead to the decision to expand the system statewide, according to says Tom Mefferd, director of the DuPage County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

In the latest phase of a seven-part expansion plan which already encompasses an estimated 500 sites across Illinois, 1,200 fire departments will have EMNet terminals installed. In addition, DuPage and Kane counties have installed the system in a variety of local command and control, dispatch, and hospital facilities throughout their respective counties. In DuPage County, a project is underway to install EMNet terminals in each of the 42 school districts, which will allow the rapid sharing of emergency information and provide for a common secure format for any school health-related and localized emergency event reporting.

“This expansion is designed to enhance the statewide warning capability but also to speed the activation of statewide mutual aid assets during periods of emergency,” says Mefferd. Expansion of the system into the private sector also begun. “The flexibility provided by the vendor allows the private sector to share critical information needed to support their internal emergency operations while at the same time allowing the private sector to link into statewide and national warning networks. This allows real time reception of severe weather information as well as AMBER alerts as well as national security bulletins,” he says.

“The installation of a nationwide secure data communications system is critically important to interoperability and the sharing of operational intelligence. Currently 13 states and portions of Canada use the EMnet system,” says Mefferd. “The importance of rapid dissemination of warning and critical information is paramount. EMNet is nationwide in structure and ready for other states to plug into. A total interoperable system is critical to the sharing of emergency information. While some states are currently using this technology, the system’s effectiveness could be greatly enhanced if it were used nationwide on a daily basis.”

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