"This is a test of the Emergency Alert System; this is only a test ..." is the public face of America's early warning network, but since 9/11, federal officials have been considering upgrades.
Now the FCC is looking at some new-generation add-ons: tornado warnings that turn on household TVs as funnel clouds approach; notices sent to cell-phone and PDA owners in their native tongue; terrorism alerts tailored by zip code.
Officials have yet to formalize how all this technology will work. The turn-on-TV feature requires a special adapter that works like the weather alert radios popularized by Radio Shack. If a committee approves the proposals later this month, these and other additions will become voluntary industry practices.
Today's Emergency Alert System (EAS) dates to the Harry S. Truman administration. The system works a bit like the Internet, in that it can run unattended and will keep working if one communications link is knocked out. Officials now want the system to work with any electronic media, including broadband, satellite, and wireless services.
Originally intended to warn of nuclear attack, the EAS was tweaked in the 1990s to adapt to cable TV-and allow local authorities to send their own warnings.