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Bogus homeland alerts hit the air in Florida

Some Florida residents were alerted to a nonexistent radiological emergency last week after a gaffe by a National Weather Service operator during a routine test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS), Wired News reported.

The EAS, a 1997 replacement for the Cold War-era Emergency Broadcast System, transmits emergency audio and text information to the public over weather-alert radios and by interrupting commercial television and radio broadcasts.

A digital header at the top of every EAS alert dictates how long it is in effect and how far the message should be propagated. It also identifies the type of event by a three-letter code.

The incident in Florida occurred when an operator at the National Weather Service’s Tallahassee forecast office inadvertently entered the code “RHW” instead of “RWT,” keying a radiological hazard warning instead of a required weekly test.

The warning was broadcast to the Florida panhandle and parts of southern Georgia, National Weather Service warning-coordination meteorologist Walt Zaleski told Wired. The error failed to cause panic, in part because the audio accompanying the message still identified it as “only a test,” and the office moved rapidly to quash the false alarm.

The station quickly alerted every radio and television station within their viewing and listening area that the ID had gone out incorrectly and that there was no emergency.

A similar glitch at a Las Vegas radio station a day earlier falsely alerted cable companies, radio and TV stations in five counties to a national crisis that didn’t exist. That error occurred when KXTE-FM tried to send out a message canceling an earlier Amber Alert, and instead transmitted an emergency action notification (EAN) — a special code reserved for the president of the United States to use in the event of a nuclear war or similar extreme national emergency.

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