WASHINGTON – “This is a test.”
The familiar lead-in to tests of the nation’s emergency broadcast system may soon be coming to a computer or cell phone near you, under a new digital system that will debut on Maryland Public Television, WETA and a handful of other public television stations.
Public TV will eventually form the backbone of a national network to “datacast” emergency information to a range of media outlets, from local TV and radio to cell phones, said John Lawson, president of the Association of Public Television Stations.
The digital upgrade is a joint project of the association and the Federal Emergency Management Agency that was announced at a news conference Thursday.
The existing Emergency Alert System “has its roots in the Cold War,” Lawson said. “A digital EAS will provide a major advance in our public warning system as we fight the war on terror.”
He said the problems with the old system, which is based on analog technology, were clearly demonstrated on Sept. 11. Radio and TV stations were unable to broadcast EAS signals due to bandwidth “bottlenecks” following the terrorist attacks that day.
Digital technology, he said, also offers “dual use” of the nation’s 355 public television stations, 291 of which are already equipped with digital transmitters.
“With digital TV, you can send very rich media,” said Mark O’Brien, executive vice president of SpectraRep, the Chantilly, Va., company that is designing the system. Examples include “maps, evacuation routes, treatment protocols for emergency rooms, video, just-in-time training for first responders, or simple text for cell phones,” he said.
The new system will be tested in the Washington, D.C., area, Lawson said. FEMA will transmit sample emergency information via satellite to the Washington public television station, WETA, and from there to a handful of others, including MPT.
Cell phone companies, including T-Mobile, AT&T Wireless and Cingular are also expected to participate, he said.
MPT President Robert J. Shuman said the station’s role will be to send test messages “in TV or data forms to our homes, police and fire departments.”
“Let’s say the president needs to come on at 12 noon to send a message to all our citizens,” he said, or, “if it’s another message to those coming from trains or airports, we can get messages out to initial folks in field.”
MPT will coordinate with the Maryland Emergency Management Agency for the test, Shuman said.
All six of MPT’s transmitters have been upgraded to digital, he said. The network also has portable satellite and microwave trucks that can be used to keep it on the air in emergencies.
The network’s tech staff will be at the table next week when FEMA and the Association of Public Television Stations meet to firm up plans for the Washington-area pilot.
A report on the pilot project is due to Congress the end of January, said Reynold Hoover, director of FEMA’s Office of National Security Coordination.
“If the technology proves itself, we should be well on our way to establishing a digital backbone nationwide by the end of next year,” he said.
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