We interrupt this broadcast . . .

When radio was the only thing on the airwaves, it was easy to communicate to the masses. But now the options are too varied. Alerting approaches need to be varied, too. With all the taxpayer money spent on homeland security, it's downright insulting that human processes and fax machines still are driving state evacuations - even false ones.

Believe it or not, the "War of the Worlds" hit Connecticut on Feb. 1. The state was being invaded, and all residents were told to evacuate. Think I'm kidding? OK, the alien invasion part is not true, but on Feb. 1, Connecticut residents were indeed told by broadcast to flee the state immediately.

You probably won't be surprised to hear that the alert was a mistake made by someone tasked with performing the weekly test of the emergency broadcast system. State emergency management officials say an employee pressed the wrong button. Instead of hearing a test of the emergency alert system, midday television viewers and radio listeners were told that the state was being evacuated: "Civil authorities have issued an immediate evacuation order for all of Connecticut, beginning at 2:10 p.m. and ending at 3:10 p.m." Glad they gave us an hour to get the heck out of here. (It takes me an hour just to get to the nearest mall, but that's another story.)

The funnier (sadder) aspect of this incident is that, in a state of 3.5 million people, no one really took the alert seriously. In fact, hardly anyone heard about it until the 5 p.m. news. Because the alert went over the radio and TV at midday, its reach was limited to those watching TV or listening to the radio at the time. I don't have the statistics handy, but I'll wager that only a small portion of the state is on air at 2:10 p.m.

So if you are in the state's Office of Emergency Management in Hartford and you think you just scared the heck out of the citizenry, in this age of Skype, Gigabit switching and fiber-optic lines, how do you correct the situation? Officials sent out a fax to every police department in the state, informing them of the false alarm. Well, now I'm going to check my fax machine a little more often!

The fact that this incident happened in the first place is stupid, but the fact that we're relying only on TV and radio broadcasts is even worse. What we really need is an approach that is built around the way we communicate in the 21st century.

We live in an age of cell phones, PDAs, e-mails, instant messaging and wireless data access. Alerting should not play to the least common denominator, but instead address the maximum number of mechanisms that ensure that the message gets out. Call me silly, but I certainly wouldn't mind getting a phone call, fax, e-mail, IM, Short Message Service (SMS) and on-screen alert if a nuclear bomb just went off and I should get my kids inside because of the fallout.

This concept of multimodal alert systems isn't just pie in the sky. I read that one of the first really useful communications systems in tsunami-ravaged areas such as Sri Lanka and Thailand was a grass-roots-developed and -organized SMS-based system called the Alert Retrieval Cache . This system was developed on the fly in response to the emergency situation, but is now being further developed as an open source project that can accept SMS alerts and distribute them widely via e-mail, SMS or other methods.

I'm sure there's a load of alerting services - the functionality exists; it's commonplace. There's a business model in there somewhere for service providers. Whoever solves this problem needs to make it as accessible to government as to the masses.

In addition, we need a better means to tell others how we like to be communicated with and under what circumstances. Leaving a voice mail on my cell phone is useless, while IM and e-mail are the best ways to get me. How's the Office of Emergency Management ever going to know that?

When radio was the only thing on the airwaves, it was easy to communicate to the masses. But now the options are too varied. Alerting approaches need to be varied, too. With all the taxpayer money spent on homeland security, it's downright insulting that human processes and fax machines still are driving state evacuations - even false ones.

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