Emergency management officials in Washington triggered the first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System on Wednesday, but people glued to iPads, cellphones and PDAs most likely missed it.

That’s because the faux warning, even though it could have come from the president himself, is still captive to the old-school media: television and radio.

The 30-second test interrupted TV programming with a scroll that read: “The primary entry point has issued an emergency action notification for the District of Columbia until 2:15 p.m.” Had it been a real emergency, the alert presumably would have been clearer and more helpful.

To the average Maine viewer and listener, Wednesday’s test seemed pretty familiar. Once a week, Maine stations run their own test of the alert system, and once a month one of four agencies in the state triggers a test alert. The National Weather Service uses the emergency alerts in the event of unusually severe weather.

But at 2 p.m. Wednesday, lots of people were at work or school and otherwise not listening to the radio or watching television.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is already working on ways to get the message through to people on different platforms. A program nicknamed IPAWS, the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, should start incorporating cellphone carriers in the first few months of next year.

“Yes, we continue to use the broadcasters because they’re a huge part of informing the public, but IPAWS encompasses using text messages, cellphone messaging, emailing — every communications you can envision,” said Lynette Miller, spokeswoman for the Maine Emergency Management Agency.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, ranking Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has advocated for use of the new technology.

“Today’s emergency alert system is based on 1950s technology,” Collins said in an interview Wednesday after the test. “FEMA is making progress, as today’s test has shown, but technology is going to continue to evolve. Eighty percent of Americans have cellphones now. That wasn’t the case five years ago.”

Collins used the occasion of Wednesday’s first national alert test to say FEMA needs to ensure that alerts reach the broadest possible population, including rural areas and people with disabilities.

Collins is proposing legislation that would require FEMA to continue having regular national tests, and that training be available for state and local emergency officials on implementing the new technology. The bill also would allow people to opt out of all but the most serious of emergency alerts.

“We want to respect people’s privacy,” Collins said, “and I believe the vast majority of people will choose to receive emergency messages, but I don’t want to impose that message on people who, for whatever reason, are adamantly opposed to receiving the message.”

That raises a dilemma. If the public has to opt in to using social media alerts by “following” FEMA on Twitter or “liking” it on Facebook, then FEMA won’t get the coverage it seeks.

So instead, the alerts would be in universal digital language and come across cellphones and tablets unbidden, like texts and emails and even phone calls unless a customer blocks it.

But that might rub media customers the wrong way.

Dan Panici, associate professor of communications and media studies at the University of Southern Maine, said people rebel a bit when Facebook and Twitter try to incorporate ads in their platforms.

“The credibility of the government is so low right now, having it creep into our social networks might even make it go a little lower,” Panici said.

He noted that social networking and “smart” devices may augment traditional media, but most people still get their important information from TV and radio.

“Most of what we’re getting on social networks is information about personal issues,” he said.

The technology may ultimately disregard customer preference, at least in issues of national importance or regional danger.

“If you’re driving through a part of the country having an emergency, a signal comes out of a cellphone tower and you get a text message whether you have subscribed to that area’s alerting system or not,” said Miller, of the Maine emergency agency. Miller said that access — in true emergencies — is vital.

“Truthfully, the first emergency responder in any kind of emergency is you or me. It’s us in our house,” she said. “If we don’t know what’s happening, we can’t take the steps we need to take to protect ourselves and our family.”

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: [email protected]


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