WASHINGTON: The feds have scheduled the first ever national test of the Emergency Alert System. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Communications Commission will conduct the test Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 2 p.m. EST. The duration may last up to three-and-a-half minutes.
A national alert enables the president to break into regular broadcasts and address the American public during emergencies. One has never been issued in the history of the system, established in 1951 by then President Harry Truman during the Cold War. It was then known as CONELRAD and included the capability to jam aircraft homing devices. It was replaced in the 1960s by the Emergency Broadcast System, which in turn was supplanted with the current Emergency Alert System in 1997.
The current EAS network is used by the National Weather Service, state governments and municipalities to issue regional and local warnings. Local law enforcement agencies use the system to issue AMBER Alerts on abducted children.
Similar to local EAS tests that are already conducted frequently, the nationwide test will involve broadcast radio and TV stations, cable television, satellite radio and television services and wireline video service providers across all states and the territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa. The nation and its territories are divided into 550 EAS areas.
On Nov. 9, those carriers will transmit the audio message: “This is a test.” All will be required to participate. The test is intended to identify and work the bugs out of the system.
“It is important to remember that this is not a pass or fail test, but a chance to establish a baseline for making incremental improvements to the Emergency Alert System with ongoing and future testing,” said Damon Penn, FEMA’s assistant administrator of National Continuity Programs. “It is also important to remember that the Emergency Alert System is one of many tools in our communications toolbox, and we will continue to work on additional channels that can be a lifeline of information for people during an emergency.”
The November test is a culmination of more than two years of planning and development. A limited-area test was done in Alaska in January of 2010, with 104 radio stations and 26 TV stations participating. There were points of failure involving audio levels and improperly functioning encoders and decoders. That the hardware is not configured to a single standard complicates matters.
EAS participants are under a September deadline to implement a Common Alerting Protocol, an advanced data format intended to standardize the alerts issued by various federal agencies. The protocol is said to be much more complex than regular EAS transmission, and the FCC is said to be considering an extension of the deadline. ( See “Extension of EAS CAP Deadline Possible.”)
After the first test in November, weekly or monthly tests are likely to become routine, according to the FCC.
~ Deborah D. McAdams, Television Broadcast