Amber Alerts, used to
rapidly disseminate news of child abductions, are getting a lot of
attention from federal and state governments looking for better ways to
warn the public of imminent danger such as threats to public safety. The
ultimate goal: a standard, nationwide system for alerting the public.
The National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO) is planning a pilot
that would operate similarly to Amber Alerts and could enable states to
warn people of everything from overturned trucks hauling gas to a chemical
attack. On the federal level, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security
(DHS) is already in the midst of such a pilot.
Amber Alerts are sent to broadcasters--which stop programs to announce
details of suspected kidnappings--and directly to the public via E-mail,
text messages, electronic roadside signs, and pop-ups on computer screens.
Safety information from governments tends to flow like water from a
hydrant: If you aren't standing in front of it, you aren't getting wet. A
good example is storm warnings that can only alert people who are
listening to a radio or watching TV when the warning is issued. The
creators of Amber Alerts have honed what might be called the capillary
model of information distribution: Alerts start in a central conduit,
namely a Web portal, and flow out to a variety of devices.
Chris Dixon, an issues coordinator with NASCIO, says the organization
is in the early stages of planning its pilot--coordinating with DHS to
minimize overlap in the projects. The goal is to create a nationwide alert
network called the All Alert System, Dixon says.
"It'd be state-implemented and state-activated," Dixon says. Governors
could use the system at their discretion either for their states alone or
in concert with other governors.
The system would be able to send messages--targeted down to an
individual ZIP code, if necessary. Dixon says he's already thinking about
ways to harden the network against hacking and crashes.
The pilot is expected to be running by the end of the first quarter,
despite the fact NASCIO hasn't made a short list of locations for the
test. By August, NASCIO must report to Congress on results of the pilot.
There's no budget for the pilot yet.
Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is in the midst of
its Digital Emergency System pilot project. Reynold Hoover, director of
the office of national security coordination, says FEMA is mandated by the
Intelligence Reform Act to work with NASCIO to minimize duplicative
"We're proposing that they become part of [our] pilot," which began in
October and should end in March, Hoover says. FEMA is testing the
practicality of using the digital signals of public TV stations as the
conduit that would carry warnings to mobile phones, PDAs, satellite
broadcasts, cable companies, and others.