Serious business

The holidays are always a wonderful time of year. For some, it’s time for the annual station holiday party, complete with blooper reels, bad jokes, thimble-size cocktails, bland food and at least one guy in a leisure suit. It’s also the last opportunity for many to use or lose 2011 vacation days. For managers, it may also mark the beginning of a new fiscal year, meaning some complicated technical decisions will have to be made that prove to be visionary for years to come.

Where do managers get the information to make such crucial decisions? Some visit NAB and CES. More often, they rely on experience, word of mouth, trade publications like Broadcast Engineering, newsletters like this and salespeople. Our mission is to provide dependable, accurate, unbiased product and technology information. Then you can make enlightened decisions by knowing what questions to ask salespeople.

Hello, 2012
December in the technical side of the broadcast industry is about as quiet as it gets. Sweeps are over. New products are few. Vacations and holidays are enjoyed as anticipation and preparation grows for the annual flood of new gear, technology and showmanship beginning at the 2012 CES and again at the 2012 NAB Show. Both are held at the Las Vegas Convention Center. With exhibits open from Jan. 10-13, 2012, CES expects approximately 2700 exhibitors. CES 2011 attracted about 150,000 people, including nearly 50,000 exhibitors and 6000 from the press. In contrast, the 2011 NAB Show attracted about 93,000 visitors and 1500 exhibitors.

CES is huge, and between you and me, it’s more of a fun show to visit for a couple of reasons. The fact that many of the vendors and visitors just finished the holiday sales season and are ready to relax and dream a little creates a unique show atmosphere. The second reason is that it’s a great place to spot trends, meet friends, play with new toys and find some prototypes if you know how to ask.

Curious engineers
Late one night, back when TV stations signed off every night for transmitter maintenance, another engineer and I crossed a line we could no longer ignore. We were working the transmitter maintenance shift, and the line was the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) emergency message audio cart. It hung in a prominent spot on the wall in master control. It was sealed in a plastic bag along with printed FCC instructions sealed in a very official looking pink envelope. So what do a couple of curious young engineers do with probably the best kept secret at the station?

We surreptitiously opened the sealed bag and the official envelope and read the instructions. They were spooky. Then we auditioned the audio cart. Even at 2 a.m. with the transmitter off, it was the scariest sound we ever heard from a loudspeaker. It was precisely what our friends, families and community would hear should that moment come. We could only imagine how the announcer must have felt when he recorded it, and how the community would respond if it ever heard it. That audio cart was the most powerful thing I ever held in one hand. We sealed it all back up and never mentioned it again, until now.

Cue the confusion
Imagine you’re a Verizon Android cell phone customer in New Jersey’s Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris or Ocean Counties. At 12:26 p.m. on Monday Dec. 12, 2011, you receive an alert that says “CMAS ALERT - Civil Emergency in this area until 1:24 PM EST Take Shelter Now U.S. Govern” such as the one in the photo. It happened last week. How would you have reacted?

As you can imagine, local 911 operators were swamped with calls. Some people logged on Twitter, tweeting they were “scared and didn’t know how to react.” The Department of Homeland Security responded with a tweet confirming there was no emergency. What scares me is that some people would go to Twitter before a local broadcast station. On the other hand, that’s exactly the reality FEMA must deal with.

Perhaps the message was an accident, or a hack. Maybe some curious young tech did it. Maybe it was an unannounced test of the PLAN, aka CMAS system, a part of FEMA’s IPAWS system, as discussed in the previous “Transition to Digital” tutorial this month. As of now, nobody has taken responsibility for the message.

According to, Verizon issued this statement about the event: “Around Noon this afternoon a test emergency notification text message was sent to customers in Middlesex, Monmouth and Ocean Counties in New Jersey. This test message was not clearly identified as a test. We apologize for any inconvenience or concern this message may have caused.”

According to the website, “Police in Rumson NJ responded to the text alert by issuing its own alert to citizens in the Monmouth County area: ‘THERE IS NO EMERGENCY. The 'take shelter' message that Verizon sent IS NOT a VALID message. DO NOT CALL THE POLICE.” “There is no reason to panic here," said Monmouth County NJ Sheriff Shaun Golden. "It is a false text done maliciously today at 12:27 p.m."

Lessons learned
I’ve heard some words and phrases that describe situations such as the recent Verizon event more colorfully than I can here. And, that’s exactly why broadcasters must be extremely cautious not to cry “wolf.” The last time that happened was in 1938, when CBS Radio broadcast Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of the War of the Worlds. The public panicked, and history shows broadcasters learned their lesson then and there. Other than the fairly recent phenomena of a few overzealous weather reporters, broadcasters know better than to cry “wolf,” unless, of course, the wolf is real.

I mention the Verizon event to illustrate what happens when people not familiar with the concept of broadcasting broadcast emergency messages to the general public. Whether it is a building fire alarm, a local weather warning or a national security emergency, some people will always question its seriousness, panic or both. They’re the ones who respond to an oncoming tornado by grabbing their cell phone camera and running outdoors.

The best we broadcasters can do to help people is to treat all emergency warnings and warning systems with all the seriousness our viewers, our stations, our communities, FEMA and the FCC expect, demand and deserve. Imagine what would have happened if the local primary EAS station had broadcast that message.