NEW YORK – The Emergency Alert System (search) was once an unavoidable reminder of Cold War (search) threats, an unearthly buzzing sound that interrupted TV and radio broadcasts and ended with the iconic proclamation "This is only a test."
These days, the tests are much shorter, less obtrusive -- and easy to miss. But the system, emblematic of the nation's emergency alert network, is a mess, says a group of leading state and local disaster response officials.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the officials formed the nonprofit Partnership for Public Warning (search). New threats demanded improved warning systems, they reasoned, networks using the latest technologies to save lives by speeding warnings to cell phones and evacuation maps to handheld computers.
Now, frustrated by what they consider the federal government's tortoiselike movement to overhaul warning systems, the partnership may be on the verge of disbanding. It meets Monday to discuss that option.
"One of these days, there will be a terrorism event, or an emergency where a lot of lives could have been saved," said Peter L. Ward, an earthquake warning expert and former chairman of the partnership. "It will be a political scandal. Then billions will be thrown at it."
The group was created in the absence of a federal initiative, and its study of national warning systems found shortcomings ranging from an inability to wake sleeping people to a failure to teach citizens what to do if warned.
The partnership suggested solutions including radios and TVs that turn on automatically for late-night warnings and a national "Warning Day" (search) to increase preparedness.
Current warning systems are a sorry patchwork, said Art Botterell, a founding partnership trustee and a former U.S. and California emergency official.
The lack of federally mandated standards leaves state and local government building their own systems without help, and that has led to warning systems that range from well-funded to virtually nonexistent.
Los Angeles and San Francisco have sophisticated emergency management offices that run public preparedness fairs and even help companies develop their own emergency plans, said Dennis Mileti, professor emeritus of the Hazards Center (search) at the University of Colorado.
But other West Coast cities at risk for disasters such as tidal waves can't even afford a siren. (And, in fact, Los Angeles lost funding for warning sirens in the 1980s and no longer has them.)
With little federal funding and standards, the next generation of warning technology may still come from states, as they create Amber Alert (search) systems for missing children that knit together diverse media and technology so people can get alerts myriad ways including through cell phones, e-mail and pagers.
Arizona announced a next-generation Amber Alert system in early June; other states are expected to follow later this summer. The technology they will use comes from a public-private partnership that runs Earth911 (search), a recycling Web site.
Warning systems are also fragmented within the federal government, said John Sorensen, a research and development staffer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (search). "There's one system for weather, one for hazardous materials, one for terrorism," he said. "We don't have a comprehensive national warning policy that encompasses all hazards."
There is just one federally controlled medium that carries all alerts -- the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (search) weather radio. The NOAA announced this month that it would carry everything from hurricane warnings to missing child alerts.
The agency does not track the percentage of the population that owns NOAA weather radios. But estimates range from 5 percent in some areas to 10 percent to 15 percent in places such as Oklahoma City, where tornados are common, said Craig Fugate, the partnership's chairman and director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
The partnership proposed solutions to such problems, including a national technical standard it devised that uses the XML computer standard to link diverse communications systems.
Among its other suggestions:
--Making a single federal agency responsible for issuing warnings and setting technical standards, procedures and education around warnings.
--Using such existing technologies as "reverse 911," which can be programmed to call homes in a specific area in an emergency, to sent alerts to residences and wireless devices.
--A two-year, $10 million warning-reform plan that would include a national warning day when local systems would be tested and local governments could advise the population on recommended actions in different emergencies.
"There is certainly value to that," said Reynold Hoover, who as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (search) office of National Security Coordination (search) is responsible for modernizing the Emergency Alert System (EAS).
"We have not yet considered something like that," he said. "Part of our challenge is to educate a whole new generation of Americans about what to do if it were an actual warning."
Hoover said his department is heeding many of the partnership's recommendations. For instance, using NOAA weather radio to carry all alerts was a partnership suggestion, he said.
His agency isn't working with much money. It is getting $10 million this year to improve alert systems and $2 million next year to upgrade the Emergency Alert System, which was converted to digital in 1996.
No matter what the technology, the largest problem with warning remains public education, said Paul Light, a New York University professor who studies government reform. A warning is only effective if people know the action to take -- and the federal government offers sound advice.
In February 2003, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge warned Americans to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal their homes in a chemical attack, then revised the warning four-days later after a national discussion about whether people in homes sealed that way might suffocate.
The federal color-coded terrorist alert system, meanwhile, has had a numbing effect because it's not prescriptive, Light said. "We've fumbled it over the past two or three years. We don't get another chance until we get hit again."