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Emergency Alert System: Why US is doing first national test now

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The purpose of the test Wednesday, federal officials say, is to put that old system through its paces – to allow FEMA and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) "to assess how well the Emergency Alert System would perform its primary function: alerting the public about a national emergency." 

Adding urgency to the first-of-its-kind test are the various natural disasters the United States has faced this year, including tornadoes in Alabama and Joplin, Mo., as well as hurricane Irene. The US has also identified several potential national threats – including a cyberattack on the power grid and geomagnetic storms that could cripple huge swathes of the county's power grid, a FEMA spokesman says.

But perhaps the overriding reason to test the existing system: It is a necessary first step toward the longer-term goal of building an advanced digital system that can send alerts over the Internet and directly to cellphones, emergency broadcast experts say.

"Today's test is a major step forward toward a better system," says Dennis Mileti former director of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "What we've got today is not by any means a perfect warning system. Our alerting capacity is definitely going up at a national level with this test, but our warning capacity – that is, the ability to motivate the public to take protective action – needs a lot more work."

Most people have access to a TV or radio. That's good, but if you aren't glued to a television or radio, you won't get the warning.

Americans listen to the radio on average around 12 percent of their day and the average television set is on about 30 percent of the day, Martin Bongers, project officer for the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) said in a rare speech outlining the system challenges a few years ago.

What’s more, less than 1 percent are listening or watching at night. And nearly 20 percent of households watch satellite television, which doesn't participate in the EAS. People with hearing impairments also are at a disadvantage in receiving an alert.

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