Emergency warnings to arrive differently TV or radio may click on and alert you

September 16, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

The next time a hurricane strikes the Eastern Shore, you may get your evacuation orders from your smoke detector.

And if the creek rises, you may get your the warning from a "text crawl" creeping across the display of your compact disc player.

Those are just two of the technologies the Federal Communications Commission reviewed in Baltimore this week as prepares to overhaul the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), a Cold War relic little changed in 40 years.

Future warnings will come not just from broadcast TV and radio stations, but from every channel on your cable TV system, said Richard M. Smith, chief of the FCC's field operations bureau.

If you're asleep, or driving with the radio off, the National Weather Service may alert you by activating a chip in your pager, or in your radio or TV, turning it on and tuning it to the nearest station carrying emergency information.

The biggest casualty of the coming changes -- and perhaps the least lamented -- may be those long, grating tones on WBAL-AM and TV, and on WIYY-FM that accompany the stations' weekly tests of the EBS.

"One of the options that's being looked at is that we would no longer need the audible signal, or at least not the lengthy [20-second] two-tone signal we're so familiar with now," said Mr. Smith. "It will either be replaced totally, or reduced in length."

The new system must be one that "serves the nation well into the 21st century," he said.

Sometime this winter, the commission will decide which technologies will succeed the current apparatus. Under the current setup, that 20-second, two-tone signal heard weekly on WBAL and WIYY activates EBS receivers at dozens of secondary radio and TV broadcast stations across the region.

When the receivers activate, lights flash in the studios and engineers or disk jockeys listen to see whether it signals a test or a real alert. Tests are noted in the station's broadcast log. In a real emergency, the station would relay to listeners information from the state Emergency Management Center or the National Weather Service.

The present system was born in the 1950s as "Conelrad," which stood for "Control of Electromagnetic Radiation, Mr. Smith said.

In those days, radio listeners were instructed to tune to one or two "primary" stations for more detailed information. It was designed to alert the public to approaching bombers, and to get most stations off the air and thereby deprive enemy navigators of radio signals they could follow to their targets.

By 1976, the EBS had expanded, allowing local, state and regional authorities to use many broadcast stations to alert citizens to weather emergencies and other non-nuclear disasters.

Two years ago, the FCC concluded that system is inadequate to reach millions of people who may not be tuned to broadcast TV or radio.

"Maybe the new system would have a feature that the homeowner could activate and get an auditory or visual warning even if they have the TV turned off, or they're watching the VCR or cable, or they're just playing a CD," Mr. Smith said. "That's what we're testing.

At 10:45 a.m. yesterday, in a modified version of the weekly EBS test, signals were broadcast from experimental stations at the state Emergency Management Center in Pikesville to more than 50 broadcast stations in the Baltimore and Washington area.

The signals also activated experimental equipment on the Comcast Cable system, in mobile receivers and in a meeting room at the Pikesville Hilton Hotel, where eight vendors had gathered to demonstrate their wares for the FCC.

There the test signals triggered a cacophony of beeps, buzzes and whoops from the equipment on display. Lights flashed. Mock warnings crept across cable TV screens and radio tuner displays.

Manufacturers demonstrated devices for cable TV systems. Some placed a "text crawl" message onto each channel. At least one manufacturer has a device similar to a cable converter box. It whoops like a police siren, then relays voice messages from the weather service or other civil authorities.

Gerald LeBow, president of the Connecticut-based SAGE Alerting Systems, demonstrated an Onkyo AM-FM tuner equipped with a Radio Data System (RDS) device that permits stations to transmit text messages onto the tuner's LED display. The messages are transmitted inaudibly with the station's radio signal.

Pioneer, Denon and Kenwood tuners are already using the devices, which also are built into all Delco automobile radios installed in 1994 car models, he said.

For now, 150 stations across the country use the technology to display station call letters and music format information on the display along with the station's frequency. Listeners with RDS-equipped radios can even search for stations by format, such as "rock" or "classical."

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