Emergency Alert System in need of overhaul

Bush orders DHS to bring national notification system into the 21st century, with warnings targeted towards geographic areas through cellphones, pagers.

The nation's Emergency Alert System is a hodgepodge of obsolete warning networks, almost completely disconnected from modern digital communications technologies. Now, five years after 9/11 and almost a year after Katrina, the White House is acting to get it fixed.

In an executive order issued without comment, President Bush ordered Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to overhaul the system, the Washington Post reports. The system should be upgraded to including communication by cellphones, personal digital assistants and text pagers targeted to geographic areas or specific groups, U.S. officials said.

The White House order calls for "an integrated alert and warning system that reaches as many Americans as possible through as many forms of communication as possible -- television, radios, PDAs, cellphones, et cetera," said Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke. "We're talking about a quantum leap forward."

Progress on the system thus far has been exceedingly slow. Legislation that overhauled U.S. intelligence activities in 2004 required a study of using telecommunications networks in an all-hazards warning system, but the report has not been done. Congress has set aside $25 million over three years for pilot studies of public notification efforts such as reverse 911 calling programs or text messages sent to personal pagers. But bureaucratic inertia and turf fighting among agencies have prevented action.

"The fact that the president has said something is a positive step in the right direction," said Kenneth H. Allen, who was head of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Warning, a consortium of state, local and private-sector officials that urged upgrading alert systems after the 2001 attacks but disbanded in 2004 because of lack of funding. "It's time for all parties to work together to implement it."