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Emergency Communications: The Emergency Alert System (EAS) and All-Hazard Warnings

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The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is built on a structure conceived in the 1950's when over-the-air broadcasting was the best-available technology for widely disseminating emergency alerts. It is one of several federally managed warning systems. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) jointly administers EAS with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in cooperation with the National Weather Service (NWS), an organization within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NOAA/NWS weather radio system has been upgraded to an all-hazard warning capability. Measures to improve the NOAA network and the broader-based EAS are underway or are being tested.

The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (P.L. 108-458) addressed the possibility of using advanced telecommunications and Internet technologies for emergency notification by requiring the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to implement pilot projects. On June 26, 2006, President George W. Bush issued an executive order stating that U.S. policy is "to have an effective, reliable, integrated, flexible, and comprehensive system to alert and warn the American people." To achieve this policy, the President sets out a list of functional requirements for the Secretary of Homeland Security to meet.

Bills in the 109th Congress that would improve emergency alert systems, domestically and internationally, include S. 50 (Senator Inouye) and H.R. 396 (Representative Menendez); these bills were prompted by the tsunami disaster but include measures that also apply to the need for a better all-hazard warning system in the United States. A bill dealing more broadly with the development of emergency alert networks and post-disaster communications has been introduced by Senator Jim DeMint (S. 1753). It has been approved by committee, with amendments that include the incorporation of S. 50. Bills similar to S. 1753, but with some modifications and without the text from S. 50, were introduced in the House by Representative John Shimkus (H.R. 5556, amended as H.R. 5785). A bill to provide telephonic alerts as part of a national alert system has been introduced (H.R. 2101, Representative Meek). A bill to assist individuals with disabilities in emergency situations (S. 2124, Senator Harkin) includes provisions for providing information in emergencies. A companion bill to S. 2124 was introduced by Representative James R. Langevin (H.R. 4704). H.R. 5351 (Representative Reichert), a bill which would strengthen FEMA within the Department of Homeland Security, includes a section covering general provisions for an "Integrated National Alert and Warning System." H.R. 5759 (Representative Harris) has similar provisions regarding an integrated national alert system.

This report summarizes the technology and administration of EAS and the NOAA/NWS all-hazard network, new programs in DHS, and some of the key proposals for change. It will be updated.