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Group calls for new disaster warnings

The diffuse emergency warning systems in the United States need a revamp, which should include the use of a mandated messaging standard, a panel of emergency-response experts concludes.

The diffuse emergency warning systems in the United States need a revamp, which should include a mandated messaging standard, a panel of emergency-response experts concluded in a report Monday.

The panel--formed of experts in disaster response from the government, the academic and the private sectors--maintained that the current hodgepodge of warning systems, including the Emergency Alert System and the NOAA Weather Radio, don't work well.

"While many federal agencies are responsible for warnings, there is no single federal agency that has clear responsibility to see that a national, all-hazard, public warning system is developed and utilized effectively," stated the Partnership for Public Warning in the report, which called for the newly formed Department for Homeland Security to take charge.

President George W. Bush on Monday signed the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which moves several government agencies--including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Coast Guard and the Secret Service--under a single cabinet-level department's purview. The new agency should now take point on creating a way to get emergency messages to U.S. citizens, the report said.

The new system must be able to communicate with a variety of devices, including computers, cell phones, pagers and any new electronic gizmo, stated the report. For that reason, the report highlights (Extensible Markup Language), as a likely candidate, but other protocols might be desirable for noncomputing platforms.

In addition, the report says messages must be able to have a unique identifier, a way to specify geographic regions for different levels of warning, and encryption methods for validating the sender of the message.

The panel also called for additional research into the efficacy of such warnings, into the extent of trust that can be placed in the public as a source of information about disasters, and into the effect of a great number of false warnings on the public.

Currently, a variety of alerts can be sent out using several different systems. The National Weather Service warns of dangerous weather patterns and incidents in specific areas of the country, while the U.S. Geological Survey alerts affected parts of the country of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and landslides. The Department of Justice issues notice of criminal activities, and the Environmental Protection Agency sends out warnings concerning air and water quality.

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 mandates that the Department of Homeland Security provide warnings of terrorists acts.