WASHINGTON, D.C. – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff requesting information on the efforts to implement a public emergency response system. DHS was required by an Executive Order nearly two years ago to modernize the current alert system to reflect today’s technology and increase accessibility throughout the country.

“How the government communicates critical information during a disaster can literally mean the difference between life and death,” Lieberman said. “I urge the department to review its protocols for mass communications to ensure that procedures are in place to convey life-saving information to as many people as possible through as many different forms of communications as possible when disaster strikes.”

“In the event of either a natural or man-made disaster, it is imperative that the public effectively be alerted quickly on how to respond,” Collins said. “It is a matter of life and death that emergency messages reach everyone. The current Emergency Alert System has been in place since 1951, using broadcasters to send out emergency messages. With the availability of cell phones, landline phones, satellite television, email, and personal digital assistants, there are more tools available to communicate with in case of an emergency. Our nation’s alert system must reflect today’s technology.”

The Committee recently held a series of hearings on the nation’s ability to respond to a nuclear attack in which experts testified that prompt pubic notification on whether and how to evacuate during a disaster could save lives.

The text of the letter is provided below:

June 3, 2008

The Honorable Michael Chertoff
Department of Homeland Security
Washington, D.C. 20528

Dear Secretary Chertoff:

The ability of the government to transmit timely, accurate information to the public is critical during a catastrophic disaster. Indeed, following a terrorist attack, the lives of citizens may depend on reliable emergency alerts. In May, the Committee held a hearing that examined the need for effective communications following the detonation of a nuclear device in an American city. The experts at the hearing agreed that the public must receive prompt guidance to evacuate or to shelter in place – making the wrong decision may result in exposure to potentially lethal amounts of radiation. As the hearing made clear, an enhanced public alert capability is vital to disaster response.

To address the concerns raised in our recent Committee hearing and in our Committee’s prior examinations of effective disaster response, we ask that you update our staffs on the status of the Department of Homeland Security’s implementation of Executive Order 13407 (June 26, 2006), requiring the Department to establish common alerting protocols and operating procedures to “secure delivery of coordinated messages to the American people through as many communication pathways as practicable.” Please provide an update on steps the Department has taken to implement the order and a roadmap for completing its remaining requirements. In particular, please explain the progress the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has made in establishing a Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), including a timeline for future action.

We look forward to your response to our letter and appreciate your assistance. If you have questions, please contact Todd Stein on the majority staff at (202) 224-2627 or Rob Strayer on the minority staff at (202) 224-4751.