According to the AP, FEMA yesterday unveiled an upgrade to the Emergency Alert System that will eventually allow the feds to text-message every single cell phone in the country in the event of an emergency. (What would these messages say? “N.Korean Missl coming Ur way. Duck!” or “Grab Ur duct tape now”?) It looks like the $5.5 million system will initially be targeted at public safety officials, but Homeland Security Department spokesman Aaron Walker said yesterday, “Anything that can receive a text message will receive the alert. We find that the new digital system is more secure, it’s faster, and it enables us to reach a wide array of citizens and alert them to pending disasters.”
Now, apart from the obvious problem of network overloading that could occur not only by sending millions of text messages at once, and, as a result, by prompting everyone in the country to call their loved ones to see if they’re OK, there is the larger question of whether text alerts are necessary at all. The original Emergency Alert System was never activated—not even on 9/11. With at least three television networks, dozens of cable news channels and radio networks, and the internet, can anyone possibly escape being alerted of an emergency? Is there any reason to believe that the networks won’t pass on instructions from the government to citizens (or even give government airtime)? What value could text messages possibly add?
John Lawson, president of the Association of Public Television Stations (which, by the way, has the biggest interest here since public TV stations are the ones getting paid to use their DTV spectrum to broadcast the messages), explains why text messages are useful: “[W]e’re hoping that your cell phone will go off saying something bad is happening, and you need to get to a TV or radio to find out what’s going on.” Exactly.