Edited Version of December 13, 2000 Transcript
EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation

"Effective Disaster Warnings -- Report by Working Group on Natural Disaster Information Systems"

Peter Ward
Chair, Working Group on Natural Disaster Information Systems
Subcommittee on Natural Disaster Reduction

Avagene Moore - Moderator
EIIP Coordinator

The original unedited transcript of the December 13, 2000 online Virtual Library presentation is available in the EIIP Virtual Library Archives (http://www.emforum.org/vlibrary/livechat.htm). The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. Typos were corrected, date/time/names attributed by the software to each input were deleted but the content of questions and responses are as stated by each participant. Answers to participants’ questions are grouped beneath the appropriate question to facilitate meaning.

[Opening / Introduction]

Avagene Moore: Welcome to the EIIP Virtual Forum! Our discussion today is about a report by the Working Group on Natural Disaster Information Systems on Effective Disaster Warnings.

It is a pleasure to welcome our speaker today. We have interacted with Peter Ward on several occasions since the EIIP began. He has been actively involved in the Global Disaster Information Network (GDIN) effort from the outset. Peter Ward, Ph. D., has contributed greatly to the USGS (please see his bio after the session) and is now retired, but still involved in national efforts. Most recently, Peter chaired the Working Group on Natural Disaster Information Systems for the Subcommittee on Natural Disaster Reduction, Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, for the National Science and Technology Council. The outcome of the Working Group is the report under discussion today.

Please help me welcome Dr. Peter Ward who will overview the findings of the Working Group on Natural Disaster Information Systems, specifically "Effective Disaster Warnings." Thank you for being with us today, Peter.


Peter Ward: Thank you for joining us today. We are going to talk about a report titled "Effective Disaster Warnings" recently released by the executive Office of the President.

How can we make disaster warnings more effective?

Disaster costs are increasing as more people live in disaster-prone areas and our infrastructure becomes more complicated. Our ability to mitigate disasters is also increasing through improved building codes and planning and through improved anticipation and warning. We have, in the US, many warning systems, but few excel at warning just the people at risk and few actually reach many people unless the time lead is measured in days. New technology that is already in place could significantly improve the delivery of early warnings. For these reasons, the Sub-Committee on Natural Disaster Reduction (SNDR) appointed a working group on Natural Disaster Information Systems (NDIS).

SNDR is under the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources (CENR) of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) at the White House. The group included representatives of all Federal Agencies that have a stake in Disaster Warnings and I was the representative of the U.S. Geological Survey and the Chairman. We wanted to include experts from Industry and State and Local governments, but there are laws that strictly limit such committees. So we invited many to come to one or two of our meetings to explain what they do and where they see problems.

We met monthly from Fall ‘97 at the White House Conference Center and finished our report in September ‘98. Through gross government "efficiency", the report was finally released to the public last month. The report was well received by all the reviewers in all the relevant Federal agencies and there has been no controversy over its conclusions.

We set out to understand the problems and possibilities. We inventoried what exists and what technologies could now or in the near future significantly improve warnings. We even examined how warnings are received and what warnings should contain. We tried in our report to lay a strong foundation for future groups to build on.

People take action from warnings only when they trust the warning authority, can perceive the danger, and know what to do. When people hear many warnings that do not apply to them, they tend to ignore all warnings. Thus an effective warning delivery system needs to reach only those people at risk.

The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is our National System designed to allow the President to address the Nation in times of national crisis. Messages are relayed through commercial broadcasting AM, FM, and Television stations. The EAS typically interrupts station programming. Digital codes have been added to allow selective rebroadcast, to identify which counties or 1/9th parts of counties are at risk, and to automatically turn receivers on and off. Broadcasters are required to carry Federal warnings but not State or local warnings. Broadcasters are not enthusiastic about interrupting programming.

NOAA Weather Radio is an outstanding system whose signals can reach about 95% of the nation's population. But it is on a government frequency, far from commercial broadcast bands. A special receiver is required. Millions have been sold. NOAA has been the National leader in issuing warnings and in developing warning systems.

What we came to realize pretty quickly is that most warnings are issued by Federal agencies that have some liability protection and most systems currently used to deliver these warnings or that could be used in the future to deliver these warnings are owned and operated by private businesses: radio, television, telephone, pager, and such.

Thus, Disaster Warnings typically require a public/private partnership. Making Disaster Warnings more effective requires that public and private groups work together effectively. Thus, the primary recommendation of our Working Group is "A public/private partnership is needed that can leverage government and industry needs, capabilities, and resources in order to deliver effective disaster warnings."

Imagine if Weather Radio broadcasts were within the normal commercial broadcast bands. Every single radio and TV receiver could be built to automatically turn on and deliver the message to only those people within 1/9th parts of counties that are at risk. Such warnings are delivered in Europe using the RDS system in the FM-radio band. Most car radios in Europe can receive and process the RDS signals. RDS or its brother, RBDS, has had little success so far in the US. NOAA cannot operate in the Commercial bands without special laws. A public/private partnership ought to be able to get the laws changed or come up with a way for a private company to operate such a system.

Cell phones are available in 40% of American homes with over 100 million subscribers. Technology exists to either broadcast a warning to all cellular telephones within a given cell or to detect all telephones operating in the cell and then to call them individually. Imagine the ability to only warn those people with cellular telephones in the path of a tornado as it courses through a region. This capability has not been developed, however, because the cellular telephone industry is afraid of a government mandate similar to EAS. There are many precedents for such mandates. A public/private partnership could find ways to provide warnings without mandate.

What might the public/private partnership look like?

About 10 years ago people who developed highways and people who developed cars did not work together. With talk of intelligent transportation systems that would drive themselves through signals provided along the highway, it became clear that these two groups had to work closely together. The Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America) was formed. It took an act of Congress to allow this private corporation to involve government workers and to provide official advice to the government. The corporation is funded about 33% by the Department of Transportation and 67% by membership dues and other sources. ITS America has dozens of committees that meet regularly to find public/private solutions to problems of mutual concern.

The recommendations of our report detail many of the problems that such a public/private partnership should examine. Here are the recommendations in an abbreviated form:

1. A public/private partnership is needed that can leverage government and industry needs, capabilities and resources in order to deliver effective disaster warnings.

2. One or more working groups should develop and review on an ongoing basis:

  • A single, consistent, easy to understand terminology that can be used as a standard across all hazards and situations. Consistency with systems used in other countries should be explored.
  • A single, consistent suite of variables to be included in a general digital message. Consistency with systems used in other countries should be explored.
  • The mutual needs for precise area-specific locating systems for Intelligent Transportation Systems and Emergency Alert Systems to determine where resources can be leveraged to mutual benefit.
  • The potential for widespread use of the Radio Broadcast Data System (RBDS) and other technologies that do not interrupt commercial programs for transmitting emergency alerts.
  • Cost-effective ways to augment existing broadcast and communication systems to monitor warning information continuously and to report appropriate warnings to the people near the receiver.

3. A standard method should be developed to collect and relay instantaneously and automatically all types of hazard warnings and reports locally, regionally, and nationally for input into a wide variety of dissemination systems.

4. Warnings should be delivered through as many communication channels as practical so that those users who are at risk can receive them whether inside or outside, at home, work, school, shopping, in transportation systems, and such.

5. The greatest potential for new consumer items in the near future is development of a wide variety of smart receivers as well as the inclusion of such circuits within standard receivers. A smart receiver would be able to turn itself on or interrupt current programming and issue a warning only when the potential hazard will occur near the particular receiver. Some communication channels where immediate expansion of coverage and systems would be most effective include NOAA Weather Radio, pagers, telephone broadcast systems, systems being developed to broadcast high-definition digital television (HDTV), and the current and Next Generation Internet.

Where do we go from here?

We need to build consensus around the idea of a public/private partnership and who might participate in what ways. What Federal Agencies could help with some funding? Local disaster officials typically do not have the resources that industries involved in Intelligent Transportation Systems have. How can we fund their participation? Is a small group ready to take the ball and run with it? Just 3 people signed the papers to make ITS America a Corporation and one Congressman inserted a few sentences of Legislation to allow this Corporation to advise the Government. Then the hard work began. Or we could leave things alone and miss the many opportunities to safe lives and reduce destruction.

I'd be happy to take questions now.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

Avagene Moore: Thank you, Peter, for a fine overview. As promised, I will now review the procedure for keeping order during the Q&A portion of the session. Audience, please enter a question mark (?) to indicate you wish to be recognized; after inputting your ? to the screen, compose your question or comment but wait for recognition before hitting the Enter Key or clicking on Send. We now invite your questions and/or comments. Input your ? now.


David Crews: Is here any discussion on uniformity in data being transmitted?

Peter Ward: We have a whole section in the report on the need for uniform data.


Paul Bourget: What, in your view, has changed in the last couple of years since the report was drafted?

Peter Ward: Actually very little. We updated the report recently and surprisingly little has changed.


Amy Sebring: Peter, regarding standard terminology, we had recently suggested that the NFPA committee on disasters and take a look at developing standard terminology as a standard setting body. I will send you info, but have you approached other standards organizations?

Peter Ward: I am not personally familiar with the members of that committee. The members need to represent very diverse communities. In our report we talk about the differences between weather, volcanoes, etc. This is a tough job to do it in a way that it will be accepted and used. The sociologists also need to be integrally involved.


Avagene Moore: Peter, I imagine you have heard of and may be involved in the World Congress on Disaster Reduction that is now in the planning stages. This seems like an issue that should be addressed during that conference when world "movers and shakers" come together. Would you agree?

Peter Ward: Yes. There is a strong need to discuss these issues worldwide. The hard work can not be done in a conference but the resolve to do it can be developed. Incidentally, ITS America has many relatives in foreign countries and looks for international standards.


Paul Bourget: Is your Working Group still active, Peter, or did this report close out their work?

Peter Ward: The working group is not active but many of the members are.


Walt Kelley: Peter - you stated that local governments may not have the resources to apply to something like ITS. We apply funds to many studies and other organizations that can benefit the City. If the right organization was out there I feel that local funding would be very possible. Some organization needs to take the ball and start looking for funds. Local funds will be there if benefit can be seen. Has any movement been started?

Peter Ward: I am glad to hear your comment. No nucleus is yet started. The idea of a PPP was also put forward by the GDIN (Global Disaster Information Network) effort by Vice President Gore that both Paul Bourget and I were involved in.


Don Mader: On a more specific note, my city is about to contract for an emergency telephone call-down system for the public. I'm interested in hearing about any "real" experience others have had.

Peter Ward: There are many approaches to call down systems, some implemented and some on the drawing boards. Contact me separately for details.


Frank Kriz: Was just going to suggest that Don get on the IAEM subscriber line about it. Very large discussion on that recently.

Avagene Moore: Don, if you will put in your email address, perhaps others could follow up offline.

Don Mader: In order to save time, anyone with info can contact me at [email protected] .


David Crews: Has there been any discussion on information overload / redundancy / extraneous data? During responses operations there is so much information coming into to communications nodes that it becomes almost impossible to evaluate and process all the data. Has artificial intelligence systems been considered to reduce information over load, redundancy and to evaluate the urgency of responses needed to be made by decision makers, responders and the public?

Peter Ward: In the GDIN effort we heard this a lot and thought a lot about it. It is not an easy issue. However, new products are coming along to integrate data into the most digestible form.


Amy Sebring: It seems that several federal agencies are involved in the warning issue. However, there does not seem to be ongoing inter-agency coordination regarding policy in this area. Does this report make any recommendations on this point?

Peter Ward: I think this PPP should be broader than just warnings and work on the kind of problem you raise. This committee was a real effort to bring agencies together. We did not solve the problem. It is clear FEMA, NOAA, USGS play major roles and have major responsibilities but many other agencies have roles too. Part of the problem has been lack of federal coordination. We believe the PPP can really help here.


Cam King: Peter, has this report been shared with the Canadian Government?

Peter Ward: Not yet. We are just beginning to distribute the report. There is an effort going on right now in Canada using cell phones and those people in the Government have seen the report.


Avagene Moore: Peter, what can we, and the organizations we represent, do to stress this problem and perhaps make a difference?

Peter Ward: I believe if we were really to form a PPP, it needs to be a grass roots effort. I do not think government fiat would work well at all. Thus, we need to spread the word, talk about it, and look for consensus and some movers and shakers.


Amy Sebring: Peter, is there a clear profit motive to get the private sector involved? If there is not enough carrot, is there a stick, such as implying that further mandates will be forthcoming, or a federal system will be implemented?

Peter Ward: There are some new ideas that are pretty interesting. There are ways to broadcast to cell phones or even land phones and you could subscribe to the service. You might get stock quotes, or other info but you would also thereby authorize your phone for emergency messages. This creates a market where the emergency message is just an add-on.


Don Mader: Speaking of cell phones, is there likely to be some reluctance from the public for using them through a GPS system because the fear of a "Big Brother" situation?

Peter Ward: For reverse 911 to work, the cell phone companies have had to institute a location system this year to triangulate on the caller's position.


Christopher Effgen: Where do you see this effort going to from this point onward? Are other efforts being undertaken to follow this up or are other efforts planned?

Peter Ward: No. SNDR does not plan to go further. There is nothing in the works right now. Of course the change in administration has slowed some things down. This was an area that the VP thought was important and unfortunately, the Republican Congress did not want progress in it, for that reason.


D. Seth Staker: Well similar to the cable intercept notifications, cell phones as another part of EAS would work well. Are there private initiatives happening now within the telecom community?

Peter Ward: There is a private initiative to call thousands of telephones per second with a broadcast message. Within the cell community there are some tests coming up soon. In general, as I said before, the big companies are afraid of an unfunded government mandate.


Mark Widner: What level of importance does education play in future warning systems?

Peter Ward: Education of people who receive warning messages is very important. We need to know what to do especially when the imminence of the danger is not clear.


Amy Sebring: In the implementation of EAS and NWR, there seems to have been little thought given to warning messages or information from local sources. Has this need been addressed in your report?

Peter Ward: In EAS, only Federal messages must be retransmitted. As I said earlier in my remarks, broadcasters are not happy to interrupt programming, so State and local messages only get retransmitted by broadcasters who decide to stress their involvement as a public service. This is a good example why EAS is not ideal as our only real National system. It was in fact developed mainly for the President to talk to us in times of crisis. But TV networks all put him on anyway.


Isabel McCurdy: Are you aware of a European committee that is already working towards this endeavor?

Peter Ward: No, I am not. Are you?

Isabel McCurdy: No, I have not seen anything as yet.

Peter Ward: I was in Potsdam 2 years ago meeting with many worldwide people involved in warning. There is great interest.


Don Mader: RE: reverse 911- has that been instituted nation-wide or do the telecomms have a deadline date?

Peter Ward: I believe there is a deadline date but I am not up on all the details.


Rick Tobin: Is the guidance on effective warnings being integrated into the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training to ensure consistency of understanding?

Peter Ward: That would be important. We have a long way to go before that.


D. Seth Staker: Peter, do you feel that the EAS has lived up to the vision of what it was to become? Did the revamp of EBS hurt or help the notification effort? What else needs to be done to this system?

Peter Ward: I believe the EAS has done a wonderful job. There are many people on the National EAS committee and elsewhere who have poured their heart and soul into it. But the problem is, as I said, it is not to the broadcasters’ benefit to expand it as is. Perhaps we can simply broadcast a sudden digital blip that is only noise in the programming but is used by receivers to decide whether to warn. The big problem is how to warn only those at risk. The average AM radio station covers a much broader region for local warnings. There are some great new products that allow warning just people in very specific geographic areas are just people who belong to certain groups, i.e. volunteer firemen for example. These systems have not been enthusiastically received at the Federal level because senior administrators have often invested in older systems and want to see them succeed.


Art Botterell: The report seems to focus on the technologies of dissemination. Was there any consideration of the processes by which warnings are created?

Peter Ward: We point out that scientists are doing a better job at developing warnings. Look at El Nino for example or the successful prediction of most volcanic eruptions in the US. However, we started our work assuming the warning needed to be issued. There is still the issue of local EM having to issue warnings for tanker spills, fires, etc. We did not deal with that at all.

Final Question:

Christopher Effgen: The problem with the grass roots hope is that the landscape is dominated by the law enforcement, fire department, transportation system and other interest group (trees), that do not let much sun shine on the emergency management grass. Billions are being spent to develop these other systems. EM will need to be able to bring these together during a disaster. Do you agree?

Peter Ward: It is a very diverse community full of big fish in small ponds. At the federal level the goals and needs of the different agencies in this arena vary widely. These are just a few of the reasons why we look to a PPP to cut across the whole community and to encourage those who want to be involved to be involved. The others can continue doing their good work. I think the whole national warning issue is a tragedy.


Avagene Moore: Our time for Q&A is up. Peter, thank you for being with us today. You did a good job for us and we hope you enjoyed the experience as well. Please stand by while we take care of a few announcements. First of all, the transcript of today's session will be posted later today. The reformatted versions will be available by Friday or Monday.

Next, we have four new EIIP Partners who have officially joined since the first of the month. They are:

  1. Missouri Department of Health with David M. Spice, Emergency Response Coordinator as the Point of Contact (POC);
  2. Santa Fe (NM) Office of Emergency Management with POC James E. Leach, Emergency Manager;
  3. State of Georgia Division of Public Health with Lee Smith serving as the POC;
  4. Logan County (IL) Emergency Services & Disaster Agency (ESDA) with Terry Storer, Assistant Director, as the POC. Might add, "Congratulations to Terry on his new position in Logan County."

We are delighted to welcome these new Partners. If you and your organization or affiliated group are not currently an EIIP Partner, please see criteria and Partnership form at <http://www.emforum.org/partners/criteria.htm> .

The EIIP Virtual Forum is taking a holiday break for the next couple of weeks. However, we will have a full month's agenda for the beginning of the New Year. Amy, would you please tell us about the first EIIP session in January?

Amy Sebring: Thanks, Ava. Our first session of the New Year will be devoted to plans for the First World Congress on Disaster Reduction, scheduled for August 2002. The Congress will seek to marshal and involve all scientific and technical disciplines, all public- and private-sectors, all communities, and all nations in disaster reduction through: a) the Alliance of 1,000 b) "Global Blueprints for Change" c) regional forums and activities and d) global centers of excellence on sustainable development. Our guest will be Dr. Walter Hays, Senior Program Manager, American Society of Civil Engineers.

I would also like to extend my personal holiday wishes to everyone who has participated with us this year. It has been a great privilege for me, and I wish you all safe and happy holidays, and look forward to seeing you next year!

Avagene Moore: Thank you, Amy. Thanks to all participants today. You may chat awhile longer if you like - no need to use question marks now. Please help us express our appreciation to Peter for today's fine session.