The GGB did a little research and discovered this USA Today article from 2003 and this Wired News article from just last year about major problems with the Emergency Alert System (EAS).
According to Wired, the EAS did not activate on Sept. 11 in New York City, nor did it activate to warn Southern Californians of deadly fires last year. And USA Today says that the "blanket" coverage of EAS is not what the FCC would have you believe.
If the president needed to warn the nation of an impending nuclear attack, he would have access to thousands of TV and radio stations to do so. But for state and local emergencies, the system is spotty at best. Even if the president were to activate the system nationally — something no president has done — he would reach only those people tuned in to a TV or radio network.
And here's a gem:
Michael Brown, the undersecretary for emergency preparedness and response, says the department isn't going to "jump in with both feet" [to develop a new national warning system]. He says the public will rely on news media for information during major disasters.
Will rely or should rely? Of course, apparently even Brown doesn't have cable in his particular section of Cluelessville. Here are some chilling words from the Wired article:
... many experts conclude [that] the Emergency Alert System is a mess. And as federal officials begin to launch efforts to expand emergency alerts to cell phones and the internet, critics say they need to spend time and money to preserve the creaky existing system and, perhaps more importantly, put someone in charge nationally.
"Unfortunately, I think it will take a major catastrophe where hundreds of thousands of people are killed for people to understand what (we) have been saying," said Jim Gabbert, who oversees California's Emergency Alert System and serves on a national advisory committee that's been sounding the alarm about alerts for two years.
Makes me feel all secure, doesn't it you?
UPDATE: In searching further for articles about the EAS, I'm turning up far more articles about the EAS being used in conjuction with AMBER Alerts than I am stories about it being used for weather or civil emergencies. I don't want to sound unsympathetic, but emergencies that threaten public safety are more urgent than missing children and should have the whole force of the EAS behind them.
UPDATE II: EAS not activated during San Diego firestorm of 2003. But it worked swimmingly to recover three abducted girls in Texas in 2004.