On July 4, 2007, while hundreds of thousands of people were enjoying the Independence Day festivities and awaiting the evening's legendary fireworks shows in and around Washington D.C., Mother Nature had a different kind of fireworks show planned.
Weather forecasters had been watching a particularly severe line of thunderstorms taking aim on the National Mall. Oddly, this is the exact scenario for which emergency management coordinators had planned -- severe weather with hundreds of thousands at an outdoor venue.
Federal buildings and businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, in the immediate area were alerted to "open their doors" so the crowds could seek shelter. Park police used sound systems to direct a very calm and informed throng into surrounding buildings. After the storms passed, the "all clear" signal was given and festivities resumed.
A more demanding public
Since 9/11 there has been a surge in the public's demand for information from its officials. Basically, everyone wants to know what public safety officials know immediately, regardless of the nature and severity of a situation.
From 1963 to 1997 the Emergency Broadcast System was put in place to warn against nuclear attacks during the height of the Cold War. Its purpose was to allow the president to address the nation via radio and television in the event of a national emergency. In 1997 it was replaced by the Emergency Alert System (EAS) for the same purpose, now with National Weather Service alerts added. Amber Alerts also utilize the EAS tones to alert the public over traditional broadcast media. The system has been activated tens of thousands of times since its inception, with more than 98 percent of all activations being weather related, however never for a national emergency.
When the EAS was not activated on 9/11 -- before, during or after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon -- many questions were raised and finger-pointing began. In the nation's one true emergency, where millions of people were in harm's way, the EAS was silent. The public had been relying on a system that was simply not able to perform under widespread disaster situations as had been promised.
In the years immediately following 9/11, punctuated by the 2005 hurricane season, it became apparent that Americans no longer relied on radio and television broadcasts to gather information. In fact, radio listeners and television viewers are dramatically declining, choosing instead personal audio devices (iPods, MP3 players), the Internet, cell phones and PDAs.
Compounding the complexity of reaching a significant number of people in a given area is the fact that they might not have any electronic device at all, or be able to hear it "ring" if there is a large amount of background noise.
Regional warning system
Nowhere else in the United States are there so many agencies -- federal, state and local -- concentrated into a relatively small geographic area as in the National Capital Region (NCR). Further complicating command issues are the multiple agencies responsible for separate areas within municipal jurisdictions. For example, the Pentagon (Pentagon Police Department), physically located in Arlington, Virginia, is not the responsibility of the Arlington County Police Department, nor is Arlington National Cemetery (U.S. Park Police).
Coordinating all the agencies -- approximately 230, including those within the District of Columbia itself and those from suburban Virginia and Maryland -- has taken carefully coordinated plans, drills, spending, sharing and implementation to achieve a cohesive inter-agency sharing platform, as well as an effective public warning system. The NCR utilizes the Roam Secure Information Exchange (RSIX) to exchange information and the Roam Secure Alert Network (RSAN) to alert citizens of critical information.