The Emergency Alert System: Failure IS an option

FEMA and the FCC ran a ‘live test’ of the Emergency Alert System in 2011. The result was static and Lady Gaga going out to millions. On Sept. 28, they will retest with the fixes in place. Will it work this time?

The Emergency Alert System: Failure IS an option

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

Credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Even a failed result can be a successful test

If you live in the United States, it's likely that you've fallen asleep with the television on only to be woken in the middle of the night by shrill tones blaring from your television set, followed by a deep baritone voice letting you know that there is no active nuclear attack or alert and what you experienced was only a test. 

The Emergency Alert System (EAS) was designed as a tiered distribution mechanism, very much like a pyramid, with the President of the United States positioned at the pinnacle. As you move down the tiers of the pyramid, you become more regionalized and localized in the coverage area that is served. Using this logic, any participating station in the chain can initiate an emergency alert message, and by default, the information will trickle down to the lower tiers as stations monitor the tier above them. 

When I was small, the system was called EBS, which stood for the Emergency Broadcast System. It was later updated and renamed to the Emergency Alert System, but the mechanism is still tested on a weekly and monthly basis. The weekly tests are the local stations that serve their direct broadcast area, and the monthly tests are focused on distributing messages received from an Entry Point Station, in an effort to test the distribution mechanism.

During odd months, the monthly tests are conducted between 8:30 a.m. and local sunset, with evening tests between sunset and 8:30 a.m. run on even months. While the capability for the President of the United States exists as the top-level entry point for an emergency alert message, it has never been activated or used. Because of that, on Nov. 20, 2011, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) decided to run an actual "live test" of the system at 2 p.m. EST. During that test, instead of using test codes to activate the system, the actual live codes that the President would use in the event of a national emergency would be used to trigger the system.

Maybe not perfect, but a failure may be strong

While many reported a complete failure of the EAS, the FCC issued a report showing that the failure rate was close to 18 percent. Certainly not perfect, but when coupled with social media and other forms of communication that would likely have been deployed on an individual basis, I believe it's safe to assume the word would have gotten out in a timely fashion.

The biggest problem I saw with the test was significant technology inconsistencies with what people heard and saw. Some stations showed the textual message but no audio and no alert tones, certainly a problem for someone who was blind, while other stations broadcast the audio for the emergency messages but did not show the text for those messages, leaving a person who is deaf or hard of hearing completely unaware of the situation at hand.

Making the news—one way or another

As if to make sure social media had something to go viral and rant about, many DirecTV subscribers saw the emergency alert system graphic, but some viewers were reportedly treated to Lady Gaga's recent Top 40 hit, "Paparazzi." You know, sometimes you just can't make this stuff up, and the ironic comedy just effortlessly writes itself.

It's no great surprise that human error contributed to many of the issues that were found, with some technical inconsistencies sprinkled in that are pretty much a given in today's ultra-modern digitized world.

But that is what tests are for. If a test never failed, you would almost have to think and ask yourself if the test was even valid? After all, everything has a breaking point, and even something as simple as a lightbulb will ultimately burn out one day. Without testing, you're going to find it when you least expect it—and likely need to rely on it.

Based on this, I don't consider the fiasco of five years ago to be a failure. It was literally the first time something had been tried from the presidential level, and hopefully we learned a good lesson. This Wednesday, on September 28, at precisely 2:20 p.m. EDT, another test message will be inserted at the Primary Entry Point, the President of United States, and a "live code" will be used. Hopefully, things will run a little smoother this time, but citizens should know that they may not see or hear text that indicates a test is in progress. According to the FCC EAS handbook for AM and FM stations (pdf), the actual message you hear may be this:

This is an Emergency Action Notification. All broadcast stations and cable systems shall transmit this Emergency Action Notification Message. This station has interrupted its regular programming at the request of the White House to participate in the Emergency Alert System.

During this emergency, most stations will remain on the air providing news and information to the public in assigned areas. This is (station call name). We will continue to serve the (EAS local area name) area. If you are not in this local area, you should tune to stations providing news and information for your local area. You are listening to the Emergency Alert System serving the (EAS local area name) area.

Do not use your telephone. The telephone lines should be kept open for emergency use.

Can citizens take action?

Should the EAS fail again, it is unclear what citizens should do to report it. One thing NOT TO DO is to call 911 and tie up emergency lines. In fact, calling the local administrative lines at the police station would also be a waste of time and effort of those who have no power to troubleshoot or correct the problem.

If you feel the need to commiserate with others impacted by the events of the day, social media is a great place to start that is likely to be accurate, informative and entertaining. Follow @FCC and @FEMA on Twitter and monitor for the obvious hashtags (#EAS, #EmergencyAlert and other variants).

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