Because overwhelming us with mostly-spurious weather alerts, fire drills, and terror warnings just wasn’t enough, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will soon be performing the first-ever nationwide Emergency Alert System (EAS) test. At 2pm ET today, every broadcast television and radio station in the United States will (or rather, should) interrupt its regular programming to let you know that EAS is capable of sending out a national alert.
EAS’s predecessor, the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), was put in place in 1963 as a mechanism by which the President of the United States could authorize important emergency information to be broadcast all across the country in a national emergency. The system was expanded later to allow local and regional emergency broadcasts and severe weather alerts. The EBS and its dual-frequency activation tone were replaced in 1997 by the EAS with its digitally-encoded ‘SAME’ header (similar to an old modem noise), which has been used ever-since for local emergency broadcasts.
Like EBS before it, EAS is primarily intended for use by the President (or his designee) in a full-fledged national emergency . . . but in its fourteen year history, this national alert capability has never been used or even tested. While I object to the constant ongoing stream of weekly local tests and spurious alerts about a two-point-seven percent chance of a tornado, I’m equally troubled that the main function of something like EAS has never been tested in realistic conditions. All television and radio broadcasters and providers (including broadcast, cable, fiber, and satellite) are part of the EAS network, and they are all required to be able to receive and rebroadcast alerts, but we really don’t know if the thing would actually work the way we expect it to in an emergency.
Well, this afternoon we’ll find out. And our officials seem to have come to their senses because, from now on, the national alert capability will be tested annually. Better to test your systems fourteen years late than to never do it at all, I guess.
Update 3:30 p.m.: Well, the EAS test didn’t work very well.
I verified that it was carried on a DC-area broadcast channel over Verizon Fios, but it came through with poor quality audio. It was understandable, but it sounded like a bad AM-radio transmission. It also seems to have not worked for a significant number of Americans, including (notably) the New York metro area. Most satellite television customers didn’t get any alert at all (with some DirecTV viewers reporting that their TV’s played a Lady Gaga ‘song’ instead). Many others report getting no alert or hearing only static.
In other words, we’ve had a national emergency alert system in place for 14 years that doesn’t actually work properly. Nice.