The Emergency Alert System logo

The Emergency Alert System logo.

Since its conceptual introduction during the Cold War, the Emergency Alert System (EAS) in the United States has undergone many changes, and its usage has transitioned noticeably over time. What was once intended for communicating with the public nationwide in the event of an attack has now developed into a standard medium for disseminating Amber Alerts and weather bulletins. In the information age, the EAS has understandably taken a backseat to quicker warning methods. But its need is far from nonexistent, serving as an effective backup in the event of infrastructural failures. Despite this, the EAS has failed to keep pace with the rapid technological advancements over the past three decades, and its continued lag could have deadly implications moving forward.

In 1951, the U.S. government established the Control of Electromagnetic Radiation system (CONELRAD), the very first iteration of today's EAS. The infrastructure was upgraded in 1963 to become the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), largely to account for the rise in television. In 1997, the modern EAS replaced the EBS to make it significantly easier to limit the broadcast to the specific area that the emergency applied to while remaining the go-to source for information in a national emergency. 

Throughout its history, the emergency alert infrastructure has never had to be used for a national emergency. Nowadays, the 24-hour news cycle has rendered this particular purpose obsolete. The chaos that unfolded on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, fits the mold of what would activate the EAS. But many television channels – including several that did not broadcast news – broadcast the scene from Manhattan live to the nation for much of the day. Doing so unintentionally solidified the EAS' status as a backup system for national emergencies in the information age.

But for local emergencies, the EAS remains essential. Most of the public pays little attention to their local weather, even on days when severe weather is likely, due to the expectation that they will be alerted by the EAS or public sirens if a tornado warning is issued. After all, that's why EAS exists. But despite the numerous ways to receive information today, the system has significant gaps. For instance, while the EAS is now connected to smartphones across the country, this only helps those with a smartphone. Those without one can continue to depend on radio or television, but a significant hole remains in the system: internet-connected platforms.

Currently, there are no internet-connected mediums that have EAS integration. That means computers and streaming services, which are quickly becoming the default method of media consumption, do not receive EAS alerts. If a tornado warning is issued and someone is streaming Netflix, they may not receive the warning, significantly increasing the risk of death or injury. 

Despite this, little has been done to bring about these increasingly overdue upgrades. In 2020, the U.S. Congress passed the Reliable Emergency Alert Distribution Improvement (READI) Act, the first major piece of legislation to get the ball rolling on modernizing the EAS. Among other helpful changes, the READI Act tasked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with examining the potential to bring the EAS to internet-connected devices, including streaming services. While this legislation was largely a great first step in bringing about necessary improvements, in the near-two years since, little progress has been made on the development, with some broadcasting companies suggesting it is "infeasible." 

Other media companies disagree. The Digital Media Association (DiMA) believes at least some parts of it are possible, albeit very complex. Xperi Corporation, an American technology company, believes using its HD Radio technologies could remedy these complexities. Even if an internet-connected EAS is difficult to achieve, there is no denying that changes are long overdue. With cord-cutting expected to increase dramatically over the next few years, it is important to get ahead of the curve now and expand the EAS before its current limitations result in more hazardous weather-related fatalities.