Emergency Alert System: Why US is doing first national test now

A test of the federal Emergency Alert System is set for 2 p.m. Eastern time Wednesday. It's the first time the EAS warning system will be tested nationally.

Charlie Riedel/AP
Vehicles and other debris lie near the damaged St. John's Regional Medical Center hospital in Joplin, Mo., a day after a powerful tornado destroyed much of the city in May.

Today at 2 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday Americans watching television or listening to the radio will see and hear a familiar sounding message: "This is a test of the Emergency Alert System. This is only a test...."

This 30-second audio tone and message will sound like emergency test messages that local television and radio stations have broadcast for nearly 50 years. But Wednesday's test will be the first time the federal Emergency Alert System – a last resort means for the president to address the country in a national emergency – has been tested on a national basis.

At the appointed time, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) office in Washington will broadcast to "primary entry point" television and radio stations "live code" for an Emergency Action Notification – the same code the president would use in an actual emergency. Other Emergency Alert System (EAS) stations will then get the message and broadcast it, in a cascading effect.

There are 14,000-plus broadcast television and radio stations, as well as 10,000-plus cable television systems in the EAS.

The EAS uses a "daisy chain" approach in which a few dozen television stations relay their signals to secondary stations, which in turn relay their signals to others. One advantage to such a system is that it isn't likely to get clogged, like cellphone networks often do during emergencies, as they did after the 9/11 attacks.

But will this system, a holdover from the cold-war era, really work?

Today's EAS system is a direct descendant of CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation), a military alert system created in 1951. Then in 1963, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) was created by expanding the military system to include state and local governments. Finally, the system was upgraded and automated in the 1990s, and its name was changed to the Emergency Alert System.

The purpose of the test Wednesday, federal officials say, is to put that old system through its paces – to allow FEMA and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) "to assess how well the Emergency Alert System would perform its primary function: alerting the public about a national emergency." 

Adding urgency to the first-of-its-kind test are the various natural disasters the United States has faced this year, including tornadoes in Alabama and Joplin, Mo., as well as hurricane Irene. The US has also identified several potential national threats – including a cyberattack on the power grid and geomagnetic storms that could cripple huge swathes of the county's power grid, a FEMA spokesman says.

But perhaps the overriding reason to test the existing system: It is a necessary first step toward the longer-term goal of building an advanced digital system that can send alerts over the Internet and directly to cellphones, emergency broadcast experts say.

"Today's test is a major step forward toward a better system," says Dennis Mileti former director of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "What we've got today is not by any means a perfect warning system. Our alerting capacity is definitely going up at a national level with this test, but our warning capacity – that is, the ability to motivate the public to take protective action – needs a lot more work."

Most people have access to a TV or radio. That's good, but if you aren't glued to a television or radio, you won't get the warning.

Americans listen to the radio on average around 12 percent of their day and the average television set is on about 30 percent of the day, Martin Bongers, project officer for the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) said in a rare speech outlining the system challenges a few years ago.

What’s more, less than 1 percent are listening or watching at night. And nearly 20 percent of households watch satellite television, which doesn't participate in the EAS. People with hearing impairments also are at a disadvantage in receiving an alert.

For all these reasons, Mr. Bongers and other experts say a better system is desperately needed.

A new system is on the way, say officials at the FCC.

The FCC has outlined a plan to develop a redundant multi-platform alerting system. The agency's ultimate goal is to have an integrated public alert and warning system that uses multiple communications technologies.

That plan coordinated by FEMA, the FCC, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) would integrate the existing EAS system with digital systems.

A key reason an upgrade is needed is the far more complex post-9/11 world we live in, experts say.

Previously, alerts focused on a single nuclear attack. Today, a multiplicity of agencies would be involved in dealing with possible terrorist attacks or accidents at nuclear, chemical, or industrial facilities.

There are also pandemic public health threats like Swine Flu.

"What's happened since 9/11 is the recognition that terrorists can do other things, like exploding dirty bombs, releasing toxic chemicals or biological agents," says Michael Lindell, a professor who teaches emergency management at the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. "This puts a lot more demand on a future version of the emergency alert system [to use] digital systems that are more adaptable and focused."

Perhaps as one example of why the old warning system needs an upgrade, FEMA and FCC officials admit that television viewers may not be clearly notified that today’s test is indeed, “only a test.”

"We acknowledge limits of this decades old technology. Because of these limitations, the visual may not work," says Rachel Racusen, a FEMA spokesperson. "The audio will say this is a test, but the visual may not say that on all TV screens that this is a test.”

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