Public Questions Purpose of EAS Test

WASHINGTON: The media is getting the word out about tomorrow’s national test of the Emergency Alert System, and some folks are wondering what is the point. Reactions recently filed with the Federal Communications Commission also reveal a misunderstanding of the nation’s broadcast infrastructure.

“Whatever gave the FCC the right to seize control of our local broadcast systems?” writes Robert Wilson of Casselberry, Fla. in a filing with the commission. “There is no constitutional way for the FCC to engage in ‘testing’ the so-called national emergency system by seizing control of our local broadcast operations. This is an unnecessary and in my opinion illegal action on the part of the FCC, and congress should be using their authority to reign in this runaway federal department.”

The test is part of an Executive Order signed by President George W. Bush to modernize the nation’s emergency warning systems. The order came in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the federal response came under heavy criticism.

The EAS system itself was conceived of during the Cold War in the event of nuclear attack. It is tested regionally on a monthly basis, and used often for severe weather warnings and AMBER Alerts. The national test, scheduled for tomorrow, Nov. 9, at 2 p.m. Eastern Time, uses specific codes indicating a national emergency. Only the President of the United States can issue a national EAS. None ever has. Tomorrow’s event will be conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the FCC.

“I am against the FCC and Homeland Security taking control of private industry... to test an emergency alert system in the middle of a workday,” writes “Fergie” of Marana, Ariz. “The authority you cite for being allowed to take control of private radio and television airwaves goes against our constitution and common law rulings against governmental takings.”

Broadcasters actually license the airwaves from the government under the requirement they fulfill certain acts of public service, including disseminate emergency warnings and information. One criticism of the EAS among broadcasters themselves is that they are often able to get the news of an emergency out before an alert is triggered by a government agency.

Other comments in the FCC record reflect a difference of opinion about notifying the public of tomorrow’s test.

“It concerns me that this announcement gives terrorists an opportunity to take advantage of the test, since no one will be looking for a real notice,” writes Jack France of Charleroi, Penn.

From Cindy Baker in Waldport, Ore.: “Why in the world wouldn’t there be newspaper articles and cable news information regarding FCC/FEMA’s ‘big plan?’ Do you purposefully want to scare the living daylights out of senior citizens? Why would you warn only federal agencies? I believe there is something more sinister going on that is related to this plan.”

Baker filed her comment Oct. 27, before a full-court media press. News of the test has shown up across the country in local outlets this week, including the Enid News in Oklahoma, the News & Messenger in Northern Virginia, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and others.

And from Dolores Dapp of Clearwater, Fla., who takes issue with the timing of the test: “I see no reason for testing at 2 p.m.... Especially with that very loud irritating sound. Don’t you know if the system works if you test at 3 a.m. without a sound loud enough to wake the dead?”

FEMA did shorten the test last week from 2.5 minutes to 30 seconds over concern for those unable to discern it as a test, which is indicated by an audio voiceover. Some cable systems are unable to run text crawls with the current EAS technology, possibly leaving deaf and hard-of-hearing people uninformed. Another concern, noted by David Honig, director of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, is that the EAS is not multilingual.

Broadcasters and cable operators--who are required to participate along with satellite and telcoTV providers--tried to get the feds to delay the test because the technology that eventually will be used for it is not in place. The EAS will soon be migrated from a broadcast daisy chain of sorts to an XML-based system that will notify all participating agencies simultaneously. This Common Alerting Protocol technology originally was supposed to be in place before tomorrow’s test, but the equipment did not become widely available soon enough. The new CAP system will not be in place until next June.

Broadcast and cable engineers in the meantime are working on last-minute preparations for tomorrow’s test, including trying to anticipate system failures. They must also have the FCC’s EAS Handbook at EAS equipment locations, and report their test results to the commission.

David Oxenford writes about one unintended consequence of the test--subsequent coverage. Oxenford, a media attorney at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP writes that news operations and perhaps comedians may use a recording of the test in on-air programs. The tones in the recorded test could trigger EAS systems down the line of the broadcasting station.

“The broadcast of EAS tones where there is no real emergency is a violation of the FCC’s rules,” he writes, recommending that on-air staff be warned to avoid the use of real tones in coverage of the test.

~ Deborah D. McAdams