GAO Faults FEMA On Nationwide Alert System FEMA 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 attacks, congressional investigators say. A GAO official tells NPR the way things stand now, many parts of the country will be without information if there is an emergency.
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GAO Faults FEMA On Nationwide Alert System

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GAO Faults FEMA On Nationwide Alert System

GAO Faults FEMA On Nationwide Alert System

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Welcome to the program.

MARK GOLDSTEIN: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: I want you first to explain what we're talking about here. The Emergency Alert System, this is the successor to the old Conelrad, an emergency broadcast system which would tell us we're under attack.

GOLDSTEIN: That's correct. The Emergency Alert System was put in place in 1963, and it runs by a series of primary stations. It's a daisy chain in which you have stations that the government would send out a message to in an emergency. And those major stations would then transmit that message to stations across their region. But if there are problems in that system, like any daisy chain, if the chain is broken, then that system will not transmit the message.

SIEGEL: So if there really is an emergency, would we have a system that would tell us what to do?

GOLDSTEIN: Unfortunately, no for most of the country and many points in time. The current Emergency Alert System, we've been very concerned about it. It lacks a lot of redundancy. And that if the way the system works today, if there is an emergency and a 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. 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.

SIEGEL: Now, GAO does studies because the Congress, which you report to, says follow up on something here - go investigate.

GOLDSTEIN: That's correct.

SIEGEL: And actually, for a few years now, there's been a policy: we have to have a better Emergency Alert System.

GOLDSTEIN: That's correct. It was an executive order in 2006 and clearly recognition since 9/11 that improvements need to be made to the system. But unfortunately, little progress has been made.

SIEGEL: Have we spent a little money on it in that?

GOLDSTEIN: We have. Part of the problem is we don't know how much money has been spent. Because FEMA, which has run the program, has inadequate records and it's difficult to determine how much money has been spent and on what projects that money has been spent to date. In fact, one of the findings of our 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.

SIEGEL: You mean there aren't memos in the file from FEMA describing what they did?

GOLDSTEIN: There are very few documents that would help anyone determine what happened with the money, and what projects were actually implemented and sustained and then developed into broader parts of the system.

SIEGEL: This is an idea that goes back to the early 1950s, when the U.S. was preoccupied with the fear of a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States. But when we think about it, more than a half century later, on 9/11, New York City and the Pentagon, just outside Washington, were attacked, in fact. And we relied on the news on NPR. We relied on watching CNN or other news channels, and that's how the country knew that we'd been struck by aircraft. Is it still necessary to think that there has to be some nationwide system where the government seizes the airwaves and tells us what's going on?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, there has never been a national alert sent out by the president. Ninety percent of the time that an alert is used today, it's used for weather emergencies. And so in that sense, perhaps it could be rethought. However, not all stations will follow through and do what they need to do if there is an emergency. They're not required to in many cases.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

GOLDSTEIN: And only those that participate in the system do. So the question does remain that for all populations and for all sorts of risk populations: people with disabilities of perhaps of hearing and the like, or people who don't speak English, there is not necessarily sufficient capability in the system that everyone is going to be warned, if there needs to be such a warning.

SIEGEL: You're concerned about new media; about a system that began assuming that radio would do the job, and then radio and television, and then radio, television and cable today.

GOLDSTEIN: One of the problems here is that FEMA has not followed through on the Executive Order, which requires them to develop alternative medias for BlackBerries, and the Internet, and cell phones and the like.

SIEGEL: Mark Goldstein, thank you very much for talking with us.

GOLDSTEIN: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Mark Goldstein is the director of Physical Infrastructure for the Government Accountability Office and author of the report on emergency preparedness.

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