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Homeland security hits home

Fri, 02/28/2003 - 7:00pm
Thomas G. Robinson, Executive Vice President, CBG Communications Inc.

Robinson
By
Thomas G. Robinson
, Executive Vice President, CBG Communications Inc.
As Bob Dylan once sung, "The times they are a-changin'." These are certainly tumultuous, fast-changing times, with clouds of war, unrest and terror hanging over us.

Such times point up the need for quick and effective emergency alert notification and an efficient means of getting detailed information to the citizenry. A number of jurisdictions have worked together with their local cable operators to develop local emergency alert systems that can quickly point subscribers to a wealth of video, audio and text information concerning everything from a localized hazardous materials spill to a wide-spread weather event or terrorist threat.

In the past, these systems were known as "Emergency Overrides" that allowed an authorized representative of the local government to take control of all channels on the system and then direct the viewer to a specific channel for detailed emergency information. Typically, the initial override was audio only, which included an alert tone and then a spoken message. The override was initiated by dialing in to the system on a special phone line, typically followed by the requirement to enter an authorization code. The representative would then voice the alert message through the phone line and note the channel where viewers could get more detailed information. Often, this was the traditional government access channel. In an emergency, though, the channel would be turned over to emergency operations personnel, who would broadcast live, up-to-the-minute video, audio and text information.

Architecturally, the emergency cablecast signal path would usually involve a primary access origination link from a city hall or other main government center to the headend, and a secondary link from the EOC. The secondary link, though, would take precedence when activated during an emergency (effectively knocking the primary signal off the air). EOC personnel would then be able to: "go live" and talk directly to subscribers; show either live or videotaped pictures of emergency response sites (such as a hazardous material spill on an interstate highway); insert graphics such as maps showing areas to avoid; and provide continuous-crawl emergency information, contact names, phone numbers, etc.

Today's local emergency alert systems work on the same basic principal, but are more sophisticated. First, by federal regulation, they must be able to be integrated or coordinated with the federal Emergency Alert System (EAS), so that a local override cannot take precedence over a national alert issued by the President. From a policy perspective, the priority of other alerts typically needs to be developed through planning done by the state and local EAS coordinators.

From a technical perspective, EAS equipment on the market today provides for the incorporation of a local alert module that will enable local overrides to occur except when national or state alerts take precedence. Often, these systems facilitate a video (crawl or full-screen), as well as audio override for the duration of the alert message. Sometimes, viewers will be directed to both the local government's emergency channel and to information available over the Internet. In other cases, the video coming from the EOC is being cablecast in a more information-intensive presentation format, similar to that provided by CNN's headline news, where viewers can see video, graphics and a text crawl simultaneously.

A significant policy and technical issue is sometimes faced by operators serving multiple, smaller jurisdictions with the same regional cable system. While all of these jurisdictions may have their own individual government access channels, they are sometimes given the same channel assignment, where the jurisdiction-specific channel is inserted at local hubs, and thus the frequency is reused in each franchise area. Most of the rest of the channel lineup, though, may be disseminated on a region-wide basis from a master headend.

In such cases, it is a more complex and costly situation to establish individual local overrides for each franchise area, especially if the cable operator desires to override only the channels in the specific franchise area where the alert is initiated, or if the possibility for simultaneous overrides exists. In these cases, jurisdictions sometimes work together to have the largest jurisdiction become the regional clearing- house for emergency alerts, thus enabling the entire region to get the alert and enabling viewers to tune to a single government emergency channel available across the entire region. In order to facilitate this clearinghouse approach, normally, an intergovernmental agreement is required. This agreement will spell out everything from decision trees regarding alert issuance to the connection methods for the delivery of remotely generated information from one of the participating jurisdictions to the main dissemination point.

Since 9/11, homeland security has received some much deserved attention, which was lacking in the past. Many old emergency override systems that were gathering dust have since been tested, activated and upgraded. Cable operators and franchise authorities in jurisdictions without such systems today would do extremely well to focus on implementing them, even before the issue may come up in franchise transfer or renewal discussions.

Have a comment? Contact Tom by e-mail at: robinson@cbgcommunications.com

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