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Connecting Government and Media in a Disaster

A new service, America’s Emergency Network, has made landfall in Florida and promises a new, simplified way for government agencies to share information with media and the public.

With hurricane season upon us, an operation called America’s Emergency Network has made landfall in Florida and promises a simplified way for government agencies to share information with media and the public—including when traditional terrestrial video distribution channels are out of power or underwater.

A lone house in Gilchrist, Texas, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike in 2008. Photo: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

Bryan Norcross, former CBS hurricane analyst, is the president and CEO of the company, which launched the service last year. With the system, centered around a VBrick encoding and streaming device, disaster coordinators and City Halls don’t have to wait for the media to show up for a briefing; they can stream live in both broadcast resolution (640×420 at 30 fps totaling 1.3 Mbps) and Web resolution (320×240 at 15 fps, running 250 kbps).

AEN routes the content by Internet (or, if terrestrial systems are shot by Hughes’ Spaceway 3 satellite) to a hub in Las Vegas. From there, it’s distributed using a Web acceleration service (such as Akamai), and it becomes available to media outlets for broadcast or the Web (where it can be included with just a widget using code AEN supplies).

Two early users of the service are the National Hurricane Center in Miami and the Florida Division of Emergency Management. On the receive end, an early adopter is the Miami Herald, which has agreed to carry every feed that the AEN system produced in Florida.

The system has more than 300 media entities (mostly television and radio Websites) receiving feeds, with more interest nearly daily, said Norcross. On the origination side are several additional entities, mostly in Florida, ranging from the NHC down to small towns and counties.

The VBrick device enables governments to get on board for less than $10,000 and little or no maintenance or complicated operations, Norcross said. VBrick was also chosen because of its use of open standards (AEN uses Windows Media Player) so it’s ready for broadcast and for viewing without further transcoding through Web browsers looking at several Websites simultaneously.

Media receive sites can get with the program for even less—or even free when the widget carries ads sold by AEN.

When Craig Fugate, the current FEMA director, was Florida’s emergency management director, he wanted the system in Tallahassee so the governor and other officials could see in real time what, for example, the mayor of Miami was saying in a press briefing, without having to rely on media coverage—which might only carry a soundbite.

While AEN was inspired by hurricane-level disasters, Norcross envisions another use—for events like AMBER Alerts, chemical spills, school lockdowns, gas leaks and other events when governments want to get the word out.

“We think in the long term that will be the most important part of the system,” Norcross said.

America’s Emergency Network
National Hurricane Center