THE MAGAZINE

PBS Pushes Next-Gen Emergency Alerts

By Matthew Harwood

Dr. Keiichi Kubota, Director-General at NHK’s Science and Technology Research Laboratories, provided Security Management with one incident where two policemen on a commuter train noticed NHK’s tsunami alert on One-Seg. The policemen promptly gathered 40 passengers together and led them up a nearby hill before the rushing water struck the train, saving all of their lives.

Unlike Japan’s cellular providers, which experienced outages due to critical infrastructure damage and loss of power, One-Seg proved resilient, making it a model for PBS.

“The prime distinction between [cellular communications] and broadcast is that broadcasting serves everybody,” says Jim Kutzner, chief engineer at PBS. “You send out one broadcast, [everyone] can receive it. The carrier’s network, however, is a one-to-one connection times as many people who are trying to connect at that point.”

That means when an emergency happens, people begin calling loved ones, saturating the cell network and causing it to fail, says Kutzner, citing last summer’s East Coast earthquake in the United States as an example. “The carriers’ networks were completely swamped. You couldn’t make calls,” he says.

Kutzner says this doesn’t minimize the importance of cellular communications as a redundant technology in a crisis, but broadcast allows local, state, and federal authorities to quickly get their emergency alerts out to as many people as possible. “The upside [of cellular] is that [it] is two-way, but if you’re just simply trying to get information out, and you don’t have need or have time to manage a million responses, the broadcast system is the most efficient,” he says.

The technology’s resilience and communicative power, say its evangelists, make it a great candidate to become one component of the federal government’s next-generation emergency alert system, known as the Integrated Public Awareness and Warning System (IPAWS).

Initiated via executive order by President Bush in 2006, IPAWS will replace the antiquated Emergency Alert System, which gave (and for now, still gives) the President the ability to talk to the American people over the radio or television within 10 minutes.

IPAWS will modernize that system and integrate other communication media—cellular, online, radio, social media, and television—into a flexible platform that can accommodate new communications technologies as they’re introduced, like MDTV.

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