At 2pm Eastern time yesterday (10 November) the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the FCC conducted a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System known as EAS. This meant that 14,000 plus radio stations, 10,000 or more cable television stations and the various satellite services were required to broadcast a 30 second test emergency message.
The EAS ssystem is a direct descendant of CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation), a military alert system created in 1951 because of the threat of a nuclear attack. Back then the US Government decided it needed a last resort means for the president to address the country in a national emergency. Then in 1963, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) was created by expanding the military system to include state and local governments. Finally, the system was upgraded and automated in the 1990s, and its name was changed to the Emergency Alert System.
But it is hard to believe that in 60 years this system has never once been tested and never been used. Even during 911 when the USA suffered its largest attack ever on home soil the EAS system was not deployed.
By all accounts yesterday’s test did not go well and many radio stations either did not get the tone, or got a message that cut out or was so distorted that it could not be heard. The EAS system uses a “daisy chain” approach in which a few dozen television and radio stations relay their signals to secondary stations, which in turn relay their signals to others. It appears that there were audio delays so by the time many of the smaller stations on the end of the feed got the signal they recived only a few seconds of the message or no message at all.
One broadcaster commented “Actually in the event of an emergency, local radio will step up and do a great job themselves, without the EAS or Government assistance. We did that on 9/11.”
FEMA report that the test was a success because it pointed out the failure points in the system. They also say there is a new system on the way, and they have plans to develop a redundant multi-platform alerting system. The agency’s ultimate goal is to have an integrated public alert and warning system that uses multiple communications technologies that can also send alerts over the Internet and directly to cell phones, as well as radio, television, cable and satellite.