In the old days, it was the annoying 60-second, high-frequency beeping sound we had to endure on our radio and television sets, followed by the reassurance, “This is only a test.”

With the advent of the Internet, cell phones and other wireless devices, emergency responders now have a lot more to contend with than a transistor radio or black-and-white TV. Recognizing this evolution, in 2006, President Bush signed Executive Order 13407, directing the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to create a comprehensive public alert and warning system for the nation. This presidential mandate called for an integrated alert and warning system to reach as many people as possible through as many forms of communication as possible.

What was once known as the Emergency Alert System (EAS) is now referred to as the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). Since 2004, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has served as the lead federal agency for developing IPAWS. In response to Executive Order 13407, FEMA established the IPAWS Program Management Office (PMO) in 2007.

Recognizing the growth of new media, IPAWS is planning to expand the traditional EAS to include more modern technologies. At the same time, FEMA is upgrading the alert and warning infrastructure so that, no matter what the crisis, the public will receive life-saving information.

Although the effort continues with a complete upgrade expected by 2012, critics argue progress has been slow and ineffective. Congress is considering legislation that would require a timeline and spending plan for modernizing the system. The bill also would establish common protocols and standards for alert operations nationwide.

At a recent hearing, a representative of the Government Accountability Office acknowledged the shortcomings when he was asked if the president had to send out a message today, who would and who would not receive it?

His reply: “There’s no assurance that the message would get very far.”