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Is the Internet ready for emergency use?

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on July 19, 2002
(Issue 2029, CSI – Crime Scene Investigation)

For the first time in my life, I heard a live broadcast of the Emergency Broadcast Network the other day. A waste disposal facility caught fire in La Mesa, and authorities needed to get everyone downwind evacuated since it was possible that toxic materials were burning. The weird tone pattern sounded, and a very stentorian announcer cut in with the warning from the county. Then the weird tone pattern again, and back to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird" for the thousandth time this week.

But after living through the Cold War and who knows how many tornado seasons as a kid in Ohio, where TV and radio stations periodically ran a test of the Emergency Broadcast Network, hearing that high-pitched pattern live on the car radio still sent a shiver down my spine – and definitely got my attention.

Further, it got me to thinking: With more and more folks connecting to the larger world through the Internet rather than broadcast outlets, is there a way to institute a similar emergency communications system online?

Technologically, I'm sure it's possible – probably fairly easy.

The larger questions are sure to be should we do this, and if so, how.

As to the first question, given the nature of the threats to public order now facing us, the answer ought to be a loud and insistent yes. Anthrax, small pox, nerve gas – if any of these weapons are launched, local authorities ought to have the entire communications infrastructure at their immediate disposal – including the Internet. We need them to have this ability.

The how question is a bit more complicated.

Most folks who are online at any one time are probably visiting a Web site – or stuck in AOL somewhere. Others are checking e-mail, or playing games.

Since the Internet is so much more than the Web, if an emergency communications system was to be set up for cyberspace, the first and most important decision would be where on the 'Net to set it up.

E-mail seems impractical for many reasons, the most critical of which would be its non-immediate nature. If folks don't check their account for awhile, that message isn't exactly going to be instant. The Web might work, but getting every Web site to add a Java applet to auto-refresh a page with the emergency information would be difficult at best. Broadcasters can be compelled to participate in the Emergency Broadcast Network because the airwaves are a public resource – no cooperation, no broadcast license. While the Internet is also considered a public resource, there would likely be more resistance to any kind of mandatory emergency communication system from webmasters (although getting a domain name could be made contingent on agreeing to participate in such a system).

Internet service providers have a higher level of obligation in exchange for access to the public resource that is cyberspace. It would be easier to require ISPs to participate in an emergency communication system.

But what protocol to use? The Web protocol? How would you get a web browser to display the warning if it wasn't at the ISP's own site?

Some new protocol or layer? That might be the best long-term solution, although you'd have a lapse between when the new protocol was launched and when a critical mass of consumers had PCs with the client installed.

Of course, the Emergency Broadcast Network didn't come about overnight, either. It took some time between it's proposal and its adoption. And enough folks had to have radios and televisions to make it effective.

Today, the percentage of homes with Internet connections is probably about what the market penetration of television sets was in the early 1960s. Clearly, the Internet is too important a tool to not use to in emergencies.

As my own experience with the Emergency Broadcast Network shows, it's not likely to be needed often. But if the need does arise, an online emergency communications system could save lives. A lot of them.