Not Your Father's EBS

TVs that turn on themselves to warn of approaching tornados. Terrorism alerts tailored to neighborhoods. Government warnings in many languages reaching computers, cell phones and wireless gadgets.

Government and communications industry officials at a hearing Wednesday said that should be the next generation of the nation's Emergency Alert System, formerly known as the Emergency Broadcast System.

An update to the system is among several proposals being studied by a Federal Communications Commission advisory committee established after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to study ways to prepare communications systems for an attack or natural disaster.

Other proposals include plans for better cooperation between the media and local governments.

The committee, which discussed the subject at Wednesday's FCC hearing, has until June 18 to vote on adopting the recommendations as voluntary industry practices.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told the committee that it is a priority to protect "the means by which we communicate timely and accurate information to the public during periods of crisis."

The nation's emergency alert system was created during the Cold War so the president could communicate with the public through TV and radio stations if there was a nuclear attack or other national emergency.

The system was updated in 1994 so local authorities also could provide emergency information through cable TV and broadcast stations. Some law enforcement agencies have used the system to transmit Amber Alert bulletins when a child is taken.

But the current system is limited to carrying only the most basic information, said Ira Goldstone, a technology coordinator for Tribune Co. and head of the advisory committee group studying a digital facelift for emergency alerts.

A new technology standard for alerts would provide a common language that "transcends all of the media, whether it be broadband, cable, satellite or broadcast," Goldstone said. He said digital technology will allow warnings to target specific zip codes and neighborhoods, getting "the right information to the right people faster."

The technology also has the potential to turn on digital radios and TV sets in the middle of the night if there is an emergency like a terrorist attack or natural disaster, Goldstone said.

"During Sept. 11 people were calling up saying 'turn on your TV,"' he said. With the new technology, "a user could say that in the event of an emergency I want my TV to come on and here are the types of emergencies I want my TV to come on for."

Special radios have been available for several years that turn themselves on and sound an alarm when they receive a warning code from the National Weather Service.

It is unclear if the new technology standard for the system will be developed by industry or the government.

Goldstone said he expects a more detailed plan to be finished within a year.

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