EAS: Someday We’ll Get It Right! (Maybe)

James E. O’Neal
Technology Editor

UNDISCLOSED, BUNKER-- Seems that the country’s Emergency Alert System has been in the news quite a bit lately, and not always in the best way.

EAS has its roots way back in the Cold War 1950s era.This first inception of a government-sanctioned system for alerting the public to imminent danger/ issuing emergency information was dubbed CONELRAD (CONtrol of Electromagnetic RADiation) and was based on the premise that Soviet nuclear bomber crews would use radio direction finding to locate U.S. cities (targets). This was before ICBMs and such navigational niceties as GPS. When activated, all radio and TV stations went off the air, with designated “key” AM stations retuning transmitters to either 640 or 1,240 kHz and returning to the air on a rotating basis; i.e. someone south of a city would broadcast emergency info on 640 and after a few minutes would go silent allowing another 640 west of the city to pick up the baton, thus confusing radio compasses.

Did it work? Hard to say. It was tested occasionally, but the Russkies never came.

Fast forward to 1963 and another iteration of a national warning system—the Emergency Broadcast System. By then the enemy didn’t need WABC’s signal to find New York, so EBS allowed selected AM, FM/TV stations to remain on and broadcast the bad news. It also allowed the President to communicate with citizens “in the event of war, threat of war, or grave national crisis.” (Initially it was to be activated only during a potential nuclear strike, but was expanded to include other emergency situations.)

Did it work? Yes/no/maybe.

It looked good on paper—in the event of national emergency, AP and UPI news services were to turn their circuits over to NORAD which would send the Emergency Alert Notification to all subscribers. Weekly tests were conducted and all seemed to work, until a certain 1971 Saturday morning when NORAD took control as usual but ran “the real thing” message instead of “this is only a test.” (A very long 45 minutes passed before the “recall code” was sent.) Many stations had no clue as to what they were supposed to do; others either never got the message or ignored it and continued regular programming. Only a handful responded correctly.

Two things happened: (1) AP and UPI decided to play the test message themselves, and (2) some serious thinking began about a “next-gen” emergency alert system.

That happened in 1994 with the emergence of EAS. It’s supposed to be a good thing, requires some fairly expensive gear to implement, and is a good revenue generator for the FCC’s enforcement division. It failed rather miserably in a 2011 nationwide test, and after CAP/IPAWS add-ons, recently demonstrated its vulnerability to hacking by tricksters with zombie jokes, and perhaps by terrorists who could use it to disseminate misinformation and panic citizens.

And we’re still adding more baggage onto the system, the latest being M-EAS for reaching Mobile DTV users and also tacking on the sending of text messages to cell phones. EAS is beginning to resemble a patchwork quilt put together by a committee of quilters who don’t all speak the same language.

As former systems designer, I learned early on that if something didn’t work as it should, you needed to address that problem and make sure things worked perfectly before making the system more elaborate. (Recall, too, the old story about the animal designed by a committee.)

Simple is good! If it absolutely, positively has to work, it needs to be as simple as possible.

I have a problem with any part of an alerting system traveling across a public network (the Internet). Firewalls/passwords are nice, but there are people who stay up nights devising workarounds. Automation is wonderful too, and AI has come a long way, but there’s really no substitute for human intelligence and common sense when critical decisions have to be made. (Think about it; if human decision makers had been involved at the recently hacked broadcast operations, there would have been no “zombie attack.”)

Maybe we ought to forget about anything other than a “one-to-many” alerting. Forget what the telcoms promise—I’m one of those whose cellphone didn’t work on 9/11 and also after the 2011 East Coast earthquake. Even FEMA apparently agreed, saying:

“However, broadcast radio may be the most effective method since it is possible that terrestrial Internet Protocol networks and other pathways could be inoperable, especially at “last-mile” delivery to the public. Prolonged power outages are expected in most catastrophic scenarios, negatively affecting IP networks and other communications, including cellular technologies.” (FEMA Nationwide Emergency Alert System Test Informational Toolkit)

Maybe it’s time to scrap the whole thing and get back to basics.

I believe that someday we may have an emergency alerting system that works as intended, but in the meantime, I worry a lot.

James E. O'Neal

James E. O’Neal has more than 50 years of experience in the broadcast arena, serving for nearly 37 years as a television broadcast engineer and, following his retirement from that field in 2005, moving into journalism as technology editor for TV Technology for almost the next decade. He continues to provide content for this publication, as well as sister publication Radio World, and others.  He authored the chapter on HF shortwave radio for the 11th Edition of the NAB Engineering Handbook, and serves as editor-in-chief of the IEEE’s Broadcast Technology publication, and as associate editor of the SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal. He is a SMPTE Life Fellow, and a Life Member of the IEEE and the SBE.