Government picks up the pieces after flawed EAS test

Last week’s test of the Emergency Alert System is leaving a lot of problems to sort out in the aftermath. The scheduled 2 p.m. test on Nov. 9 (in some instances, it happened a few minuets later), worked at some places and not at others. With more than 30,000 participants — including broadcast stations, cable operators and other MVPDs — everyone agrees it will take time to sort it all out.

All television and radio programming in the U.S. was supposed to be interrupted by the test. However, like most experiments, it didn’t work in many places. Some viewers never saw an alert, while others said the audio was distorted. ABC reported that WAPI in Birmingham, AL, reported that the entire area had trouble with the alert.

“Did not air on any station in our cluster, or any TV station in the market,” the station wrote. “Callers with DirecTV report seeing Lady Gaga.”

There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancies, but they were everywhere. ABC News reported that on the television feeds at its headquarters in New York City, CNN ran a preview graphic saying, “Soon: Emergency Test Alert,” but the actual test never ran. Both ESPN and Fox News teased that the test was coming up, but it never happened. On MTV, it was afternoon programming as usual.

In New York City, there were reports from some Time Warner Cable subscribers that the test never appeared on screen. Some Comcast subscribers in northern Virginia reported their TV sets were switched over to QVC before the alert was shown.

TheNew York Times reported that a viewer in Minneapolis said he saw the message about three minutes late. Another viewer in Chattanooga, TN, said she saw it about 10 minutes late. In Greensboro, NC, a local reporter saw the alert on all the cable news channels but on none of the local broadcast networks. In Los Angeles, some cable customers said the alert lasted almost half an hour.

Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told ABC News the only way to improve the system is to test it.

“I am concerned that we are probably seeing more failures than what we thought,” Fugate said. “But we didn’t know what we didn’t know. If you don’t test, you can’t fix it.”

He continued, “We can’t afford to have this happen for an actual event. I’ll take the criticisms. I know people weren’t happy. I apologize for the disruptions that people went through. But we need to test things to find out what works and what doesn’t work.”

Government agencies and most lobby groups for those involved played down the results of the test.

“The Nationwide EAS Test served the purpose for which it was intended — to identify gaps and generate a comprehensive set of data to help strengthen our ability to communicate during real emergencies,” the FCC said in a statement. Based on preliminary data, large regions of the country received the test, but some areas did not. We are currently in the process of collecting and analyzing data, and will reach a conclusion when that process is complete.”

The NAB called the failures “isolated glitches,” but insisted the test ran successfully. NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton noted that some glitches should be expected with a test of some 15,000 radio and television stations.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) had warned that there could be issues with the FEMA data protocol and had asked that the test be delayed. The FCC shortened the test from three minutes to 30 seconds over NCTA’s objections, but proceeded anyway. The group, however, said it remains committed to implementing the next-generation alert system, which will be deployed by all EAS participants by June 2012.