EAS system fails nationwide test

“This is only a test” … of the country’s new Emergency Alert System (EAS). That was the message from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), after a day in which the audio tones that were supposed to broadcast at precisely 2 p.m. Nov. 9 were somewhat successful but failed in some places.

Every TV and radio station in the nation was supposed to broadcast the test alert — sent from inside the White House — for 30 seconds via terrestrial transmission. The EAS system was created in 1963 to allow the President to address the nation in the time of nuclear attack or other national crisis.

FEMA released a statement, indicating it will take several weeks to evaluate the test results and the issues experienced among radio and TV stations.

“The nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System test was administered and the FCC and FEMA are currently collecting data about the results. This initial test was the first time we have tested the reach and scope of this technology and what additional improvements that should be made to the system as we move forward. Only through comprehensively testing, analyzing and improving these technologies can we ensure an effective and reliable national emergency alert and warning system. We thank all of our partners who made this test possible and look forward to working with all our stakeholders to improve this current technology and build a robust, resilient and fully accessible next-generation alerting system that can provide timely and accurate alerts to the American people.”

Perhaps anticipating some problems, and shortly before the test was administered, FEMA released a statement that read: “The nationwide EAS Test is not a pass or fail measure, nor will it specifically test Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) compliant equipment (although CAP compliant equipment should pass the Emergency Action Notification [EAN] live-code in the same manner as legacy EAS equipment).”

The test signal was transmitted via television and radio stations within the U.S., including Alaska, Hawaii, the territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa. Similar to local emergency alert system tests, an audio message was supposed to interrupt television and radio programming while indicating: “This is a test.”

“The weaknesses exposed by [the Nov. 9] test of the emergency alert system are unacceptable,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-CT), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “Government and media carriers must work together to make sure the system does what it is intended to do, which is to transmit a nationwide message from the President in a crisis. I commend FEMA for carrying out this long overdue, first-ever, nationwide test of the system. Without it, we would never have known the extent of the system's vulnerabilities."

The problems included the test signal repeating several times when it was only supposed to be heard once, EAS tones being heard, and the audio message garbled beyond comprehension. In addition, cable operators in the New York City area had issues with getting the EAS message to the thousands of cable boxes.

The test was supposed to break into all radio and television programming — delivered via broadcast, cable and satellite networks. There were various reports that it did not work correctly in rural areas as well as major markets like Boston, New York and San Francisco.

FEMA said that it understands that improving the EAS is a process that takes time. IT said the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) “has compiled experiential lessons learned and best practices from the Alaska EAS Tests in 2010 and 2011, as well as through the EAS rebuilding effort and tsunami live-code test in the U.S. Virgin Islands (located in the EAS Tests and Demonstrations section). Laboratory research is also being conducted at IPAWS.”

Some are calling for the FCC to go back to the drawing board and come up with a satellite-distributed (and Internet as backup/alternate) single-point distribution system for all stations.