Emergency Broadcast Network

Today, the alarm sounded. During the summer months, the city briefly tests the tornado warning horn at noon on Saturday — probably one of those peculiarly Midwestern things. Anyway, the horn sounded today, and it jolted me out of sleep. My brain groggily tried to assess the situation: Is it noon already? But it’s not Saturday, is it? Does that mean this is a tornado? I don’t hear any wind… Then I just squinted at the clock, discerned that it was 12:03, and promptly returned to sleep.

Later on, I found some video of “a news desk practicing for an all out terror attack on the US.” As I watched the first few minutes of the ‘VNN’ faux broadcast, I remembered the horn, and I thought: can’t we do better than this?

The horn does a great job of cutting through whatever you’re doing, but it provides no detail. Similarly, the broadcast outlets have to strike a balance between providing detailed information and repeating themselves often enough that those who join midstream can get potentially life-saving information.

Perhaps this is my bias, but is this not a perfect place to use the Internet? Imagine an emergency information site that you could browse using a GPS-enabled device (perhaps that PowerBook) that would give you relevant information: how far away the storm is, which exit routes were clear, how much time you had to react, nearest shelter/police station, etc.

Providing emergency information in this manner would capitalize on two big advantages of the on-demand Internet: no waiting for an anchor to recap, and the easy ability to delve as deeply as you need to find relevant information.

There are also two flaws with this approach: one, obviously not everyone has a computer and/or broadband, and two, the huge surge in traffic that a bona fide crisis would generate might cause the servers to crash or become slow. I think both challenges could be addressed using a system that takes advantage of HDTV’s ability to carry data. By delivering the data over television networks, those without computers could receive information on their sets, while others could get the basics without having to visit any specific site.

Of course, how long do you think it will be before the “Emergency Broadcast System” broadcasts are augmented by text messages sent to the phones of people in harm’s way? Unless the carriers find a way to make you subscribe for it, of course…

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