This Is Not a Test: The Emergency Alert System Is Worthless Without Social Networks

You probably won't hear or see today's test of the Emergency Alert System. That's a problem. Unless you happen to be watching TV or listening to the radio at 2pm EST, it'll pass you by altogether. It's a wasted opportunity. But it doesn't have to be.

When I was a kid, the Emergency Broadcast System was the alert that interrupted my cartoons or warned my family of potential flash flooding. The system made sense back then; we all had either the TV or radio on during our waking hours. The irritating honking would sound and we'd rush to see if it was only a test or something more sinister. It was the 90s. It worked.

But now I'm not watching TV very much, and when I do I'm watching something I DVR'd last week. Sorry, Armageddon, I'm catching up on Breaking Bad. If the alert interrupts any DVR action—as it's supposed to—that's just an excuse to take a bathroom break. And I'm almost certainly not watching TV during the great 2PM EST mid-afternoon scheduling wasteland.

The radio? I stopped listening to that train wreck eight years ago. More to the point, I can't remember the last time I went into a business tuned into KROC. I haven't turned to AM/FM in an office job since forever. It's all streaming and iPods now (thank goodness).

Which means that today's test, the first of its kind to be a fully coordinated nationwide effort, is a eunuch. At 2pm EST most of us will be at work, without access to radio or TV. What we will be checking constantly? The internet. Facebook, Twitter, Google. Which is why if this system is going to have any teeth, the FCC needs to implement a system that alerts the nation via their social networks.

Think of any major news of the last few months: Bin Laden dead, New York earthquake, Steve Jobs passing. You didn't hear about it on the evening news; you saw it on your news feed. A 140-character announcement that shows up in everyone's timeline all at once has more power than five minutes of horn blaring on the radio. And why stop there? If AT&T can continue to send me text alerts about deals that I'll never participate in, why not have the carriers send out messages of impending doom. You're the FCC, you have the authority to make this happen. Do it.

What company wouldn't want to participate in this? If a Facebook said that they didn't want to participate in a system that could save lives, there's a good chance that they'd do a total reversal and issue an apology within a day. You know why? Because we'll all have a fit on our social media platforms of choice.

And it's not like the FCC isn't aware that social media is a powerful tool; they just don't have a plan in place at the moment to take advantage of it. Although if and when they do incorporate Twitter, Facebook, et al won't be part of it the EAS:

Various elements of the EAS are hardened to withstand [major disasters]. Moreover... almost everyone has access to a radio (for example, in a car or via a battery-powered handheld device) and/or a television receiver. While our ultimate goal is to have an integrated public alert and warning system that will use multiple communications technologies, the EAS will serve as a primary method for transmitting national emergency alerts and warnings for the foreseeable future.

I'm not advocating that the FCC stop using TV and radio to alert citizens that something horrible has, or is about to happen. What I am asking for is that a president with a Twitter account address how the Federal Communications Commission is actually communicating if and when the shit really hits the fan.

Contact the FCC and ask them to update the Emergency Alert System so it's in line with how we communicate. Better yet, tweet at them.


You can keep up with Roberto Baldwin, on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.