The Federal Emergency Management Agency has made little progress on an emergency-alert system despite a 2006 executive order that called for improvements in the system in light of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, congressional investigators said Wednesday.
The system — officially called the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System — also remains "largely unchanged" since a review completed in 2007 by the Government Accountability Office, the GAO's director of physical infrastructure, Mark L. Goldstein, told lawmakers in prepared remarks.
Even though FEMA has some projects under way, Goldstein said the GAO "found the reliability of a national-level relay system — which would be critical if the president were to issue a national-level alert — remains questionable due to (1) a lack of redundancy, (2) gaps in coverage, (3) a lack of testing and training, and (4) limitations in how alerts are disseminated to the public."
The original emergency-alert system was put in place during the Cold War. It works on a daisy-chain principle: The government would send out a message to stations in an emergency, and those stations would then transmit that message to stations across the region. If there are problems in the system, however, the message won't be transmitted, Goldstein told NPR's Robert Siegel.
Goldstein says the way things stand now, in the event of an emergency many parts of the country will be without information. The GAO has been "very concerned about it," Goldstein says.
"If there is an emergency, and disaster strikes a major city where there's part of the emergency-alert system in place, many other stations will never get the alert that's supposed to be given to them," he says. "During the day, only about 75 percent of the country would receive an alert; at night, when there's less interference, it's about 82 percent."
Goldstein says FEMA, which runs the program for the Department of Homeland Security, maintains inadequate records, leaving questions about how much has been spent on the program so far.
"In fact, one of the findings of the report is that nobody really can tell what pilot projects that FEMA put in place actually were completed, what kinds of lessons were learned and whether any information that came out of those pilots were used to improve the system," he says.
Goldstein acknowledges that perhaps the system needs to be rethought because 90 percent of alerts are issued for weather emergencies. He says the president has never sent out a national alert. But, he says, not all stations follow through when there is an emergency.
"So the question does remain that for ... all sorts of risk populations, people with disabilities ... or people who don't speak English that there is not necessarily sufficient capability in the system that everyone's going to be warned if there needs to be such a warning," Goldstein says.