Did the national Emergency Alert System mistakenly play Lady Gaga?

FEMA sent out a live emergency alert notification that was supposed to be accompanied by a 'this is only a test' disclaimer Wednesday. The disclaimer did not always happen. Some observers said they heard a Lady Gaga song instead.

By , Staff writer

Reaction to the first-ever national test of the Emergency Alert System shows a range of public reaction and quite a few technological bumps in the road.

Less than stellar results from Wednesday's test raises the issue of just how best to send out a national alert to the American public.

At 2 p.m. Eastern time, officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington sent out a live emergency alert notification that was supposed to be accompanied by a "this is only a test" audio and video disclaimer.

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In some cases the disclaimer was broadcast. In other cases the message was missing altogether or did not include the audio caveat.  And some observers were even annoyed by the alert's dated graphics.

"It's 2012 and our emergency alert system still sounds like a Speak and Spell and looks like an Atari 2600," wrote one among a range of instant reactions broadcast on Twitter.  The tweet was apparently a response to the 1960s-style black and white lettering of the television message.

"I don't watch TV and I hardly listen to radio," another tweet added. "An Emergency Alert System that also sends an SMS to all cellphones would be more useful to me."

Catering to the government-wary, the Drudge Report posted articles on its site under headlines like: "All TV, Radio Run Gov't Message." Some on Twitter sounded a similar note.

"So that's cool. This Emergency Alert System show[s] the government can just control all media now?"

Others said they didn't see the test at all.

"Did not see it on Comcast in Northern Virginia. Instead, saw about 30 seconds of QVC (was watching MSNBC at test time)," another tweet read.

One reason the alert was not seen by some is that satellite television providers are not yet a part of the Emergency Alert System, FEMA officials say.

It has also been reported that a Lady Gaga song played through the test period for some viewers.

The glitches are just a few of the gaps in a system created almost five decades ago.

Americans used to be able to easily tune in to the Emergency Broadcast System. Every radio dial had a small triangle marking where the public could tune in for a message from the government. Everyone knew about it. How quaint.

From Facebook and Twitter, to cell phones and e-mail, digital communications capabilities of the nation have rocketed ahead even as the US government's Emergency Alert System has remained tied to radio and television technology.

In the wake of 9/11, the move to push into the digital realm – specifically with cell phone and smart-phone alerts – has grown. In 2006, President Bush signed an order to develop "an effective, reliable, integrated, flexible, and comprehensive system to alert and warn the American people ... "

To that end, the new Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) system being developed by FEMA and the FCC  will eventually include not only the EAS, but  digital capability to send alerts to cell phones, websites and other tools.

The idea is to reach people who would not otherwise be watching television or listening to radio – a huge chunk of the American public. The goal of the new system is also to reach people across certain regions – or specific localities that may be threatened.

But with all that technological ability to reach out to the public, there is a need to send the right message – one that provides plenty of information but does not engender fear – according to Emergency Alert System experts. Fear "immobilizes people," says Dennis Mileti former director of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Any national emergency alert message must go farther, and in some way, actually "warn" the public of a specific threat, he and other experts say. Any warning must give the public actionable information on what they need to do, when they need to do it, and the authority behind the warning.

"Getting the message to you in your pocket ... [is] a great step toward the warning system the nation needs," Dr. Mileti says. "But we still need to understand that increasing the alerting is not actually the same as warning – unless people actually take protective measures."

According to Mileti, three decades of research clearly shows people don't respond to messages, no matter how imperative, unless they included the following:

  • Provide authority for the message. Any warning must include a clear references on who is providing the message. If it is to be trusted and believed, it must be provided by a group of people, he says, not just one source. That's because there is no single credible source for all those people who may be at risk.
  • Deliver over multiple, diverse, and different communications channels. One channel is insufficient for a warning. If it's just television, or just a cell phone warning, that's insufficient, he says. The first thing people do when confronted with a warning is to search for confirmation from other sources. If there is none, they don't take protective action, he says.
  • Messages must be repeated frequently. People need to hear a warning many times before it gets into their heads. Getting the warning out once doesn't get the job done, Mileti says.
  • Tell people what to do. The public must be told what protective action they need to take, when they need to take it, and when they should have completed that protective action. They need to know where to go and who should not go there.
  • Explain why protective action must be taken. Telling what the hazard is, and what the consequences are from exposure to the hazard is essential, Mileti says. But don't get carried away. Don't create fear. "If you create fear, you immobilize human beings," Mileti says. Keep it fact based.
  • Keep the message simple. Warnings need to be worded precisely and be unambiguous, accurate, and authoritative.
  • Do not broadcast contradictory messages. Warnings need to be consistent internally and externally, Mileti says. "Nothing like: 'Our local nuclear power plant just cracked open and radiation is going across the countryside – but don't worry.' "
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