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Did the national Emergency Alert System mistakenly play Lady Gaga?

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The glitches are just a few of the gaps in a system created almost five decades ago.

Americans used to be able to easily tune in to the Emergency Broadcast System. Every radio dial had a small triangle marking where the public could tune in for a message from the government. Everyone knew about it. How quaint.

From Facebook and Twitter, to cell phones and e-mail, digital communications capabilities of the nation have rocketed ahead even as the US government's Emergency Alert System has remained tied to radio and television technology.

In the wake of 9/11, the move to push into the digital realm – specifically with cell phone and smart-phone alerts – has grown. In 2006, President Bush signed an order to develop "an effective, reliable, integrated, flexible, and comprehensive system to alert and warn the American people ... "

To that end, the new Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) system being developed by FEMA and the FCC  will eventually include not only the EAS, but  digital capability to send alerts to cell phones, websites and other tools.

The idea is to reach people who would not otherwise be watching television or listening to radio – a huge chunk of the American public. The goal of the new system is also to reach people across certain regions – or specific localities that may be threatened.

But with all that technological ability to reach out to the public, there is a need to send the right message – one that provides plenty of information but does not engender fear – according to Emergency Alert System experts. Fear "immobilizes people," says Dennis Mileti former director of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Any national emergency alert message must go farther, and in some way, actually "warn" the public of a specific threat, he and other experts say. Any warning must give the public actionable information on what they need to do, when they need to do it, and the authority behind the warning.

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