Emergency Alert System

History of Public Alerting

The history of the the Emergency Alert System (EAS) dates back through several predecessors starting in 1951. In 1951 President Harry S. Truman established a system known as CONELRAD (CONtrol of ELectronmagnetic RADiation) to notify and protect the US against enemy attack. CONELRAD had two primary objectives of notifying the population and controlling radio stations to avoid the enemy using them for direction finding. Providing weather and local emergency information was not a part of this system.

In 1963 CONELRAD was replaced with the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) that allowed all broadcasters to remain transmitting. With the advent of incontinental ballistic missiles the threat of attack by enemy bomber was minimized. The new EBS allowed all broadcasters to remain on the air transmitting the emergnecy information being provided through the EBS. Like CONELRAD, EBS was intended for activation by the President of the United States in national level events. However, unlike CONELRAD, EBS allowed for state and local emergency messages to also be transmitted.

In 1997 EBS was replaced by the Emergency Alert System (EAS). EAS introduced a formatted and encoded message containing what is known as the SAME header. The SAME header allowed key information to be digitally encoded into the transmitted message such as the orginator, type of incident, and the affected areas the message applies to. When an EAS message is created it is distributed through voluntary participation from local broadcasters in a daisy chain manner (each station receives it from another station, then rebroadcast it so another station can hear it) while alerting the community at the same time.

In Montana the National Weather Service’s Weather Radio system provides the primary backbone infrastructure for initiating EAS messages. When an emergency official generates an EAS message it is transmitted over the Weather Radio network where local broadcasters receive the EAS message. In Gallatin County KGLT and KBOZ serve as our local primary radio stations. they voluntarily retransmit EAS messages received from the National Weather Service so other local broadcasters can receive the EAS message too. With the Weather Radio network being our EAS backbone, this allows anyone with a NOAA Weather Radio to receive warnings directly. This is a very effective method for individuals to receive notifications.

EAS in Present Day Montana

The Emergency Alert System (EAS) itself in Montana has changed little since it’s introduction in 1997. What has changed is how what used to be traditionally broadcast by TV and radio station is now delivered to its audience. With more people listening to recorded music, media streamed over the internet, or satellite based multimedia the amount of people utilizing EAS enabled entertainment is limited.

To help address this we encourage individuals to do the following:

Wireless Emergency Alerts

To help address the issues above and the reduction of traditional land line telephones, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) in 2013 for Montana. While this system is still being refined it is a fantastic step forward and will only get better. With WEA, Emergency Alert System messages are transmitted to cellular phones currently within the affected area. No subscription is needed and it doesn’t cost the phone user any money. With WEA, any WEA capable phones (Verizon & AT&T) associated with a cell tower in the defined alerting area will be notified. This is a great tool with how many cellular phones are out there, however like many tools it also has it’s drawbacks.

WEA is limited to between 90 and 360 characters of text (depending on several variables), which can make creating a coherent message challenging. Currently the smallest definable alerting area is a county. The limited characters and large alerting areas can make it difficult to clearly identify the issue and who it affects. This has resulted in numerous incidents of confusion since the introduction of WEA. Let’s look at a hypothetical situation in our area. Hypothetically, say that a tornado is heading towards West Yellowstone and the Emergency Alert System is activated. 90 characters goes quick when trying to identify that a tornado exists in West Yellowstone and what people should seek shelter. Now consider the fact that all of Gallatin County is our smallest definable alerting area. In this situation, cellular phones in Three Forks and Bozeman will also activate with the same message. To compound this, people in Livingston may have their phones connected to the Bozeman Pass cell tower located in Gallatin County, in which case their phones will also go off. This all adds to the importance of a clear and concise message in order to effectively utilize this tool without undue confusion.  In 2016 the Federal Communications Commission approved new rules for Wireless Emergency Alerts.  These new rules will implement changes over the next couple years to address the current limitations of this system.

To learn more about the current challenges with WEA, please read this San Francisco Chronicle article.