The Day the World Stands Still

September 6, 2011

On November 9th, radio and TV audiences will feel like they’re part of an iconic 1950’s sci-fi movie when the government tests the Emergency Alert System. While you’re car won’t stop in traffic, elevators will continue to run and ice makers will still drop chilly cubes in your glass, for about three minutes, the government will take over your airwaves and interrupt normal programming on all broadcast radio and TV stations as well as satellite radio, satellite and cable TV and many other subscription entertainment services for a top-down test of the country’s major public warning service.

You might ask why there is so much fuss about another EAS test. After all, we do them routinely. Once a week we send a Required Weekly Test–waaaack, waaaack, waaaack, waack, waack, waack–and go on about our business. Once a month there is a longer test, the Required Monthly Test that not only includes the “duck quack” digital signals but also the jarring “dual tone” that has marked emergency warning messages since the middle of the last century. Once the dual tone ends, there is a test message followed by the short duck quacks. And once a while, we get an actual emergency message, generally a developing, dangerous weather situation or an AMBER Alert. Occasionally, we might hear about a telephone outage, hazardous materials spill or even a notice to evacuate our homes ahead of a wildland fire.

So EAS tests are part of our broadcast landscape, what’s the deal with the National Test? The situation is, that with major changes ahead for EAS with the development of Common Alerting Protocol, before CAP is fully integrated into all public warning platforms, the government, mainly FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, wants to know how well the current system really works and whether it would function properly in the event of a national disaster or major regional disaster. That’s because in 60 years, EAS and its predecessors, EBS and CONELRAD, have never been activated or specifically tested on a national level.

FEMA, the FCC and the National Weather Service, have come up with a plan to test EAS in the same manner in which they would issue a national or regional warning, starting at the White House and sending the message to the Primary Entry Point stations across the country that are linked to a special network dedicated solely to Presidential-level warnings. Most of the PEP stations are high power AM radio stations with wide-spread signals that cover broad areas of the country. FEMA estimates that when they’ve built out all 77 PEP station, they will reach about 90% of the population. The upcoming National Test will show whether or not FEMA is on the right track.
So what is going to happen with this National Test and what is your role? Get out your calendar–On November 9th at approximately 2:00 PM Eastern, 11:00 AM Pacific, the White House initiate the order for the test and FEMA will send it to those Primary Entry Point stations across the country. The PEP stations will immediately broadcast it, inserting it into the Emergency Alert System. Keep in mind, most PEP stations are also EAS Local Primary stations. Where they are not LP stations, the FCC still requires broadcasters to monitor their signals. From the Local Primary stations, the National Test will propagate into almost every radio station, TV station and cable or subscription service in the country. Satellite television and radio services will also pick up the National Test and carry it on their channels. NPR will run the test through their “squawk” channel.
The distribution process is expected to take only a few minutes as EAS equipment recognizes the EAN Event Code and takes over programming for the duration of the test. Even though this is a test of the Presidential-level activation, we have been told since the beginning of this planning process that the President will not voice the test message. You will mostly like hear a FEMA duty officer or staffer reading the test message. And the message will run longer than the usual EAS tests, lasting approximately two and a half minutes, to test the “seize and control” function of a EAN Event Code for a Presidential-level activation. This test will begin with the usual EAS digital (duck quacks) tones and the 8 second dual-tone attention signal and end with the usual EOM signal (more duck quacks). Be sure your staff knows to let the entire test run and that they have to wait for the EOM signal before returning to normal programming. This could be difficult–the person reading the message won’t be a broadcast professional and my pauses or stumble as they read.
With tones, the entire test could last for three minutes, so plan your programming break accordingly and be sure to schedule the ID that would normally run at the top of that hour to run instead a few minutes before the hour. It is also good practice to run a station ID after the test when you resume normal programming.
It will be obvious to anyone watching or listening that this test is different than a normal EAS test. Not only will it run longer than a normal test or activation, if someone tries to tune to another station, they’ll see or hear the test on that station too, and all up and down the dial. Also, the test message will include the phrase “This is a test” but it won’t just be that phrase repeated over and over, there will be other information.
TV stations should prepare a graphic or slide that says “This is a Test ” because your EAS equipment will generate a crawl that indicates there is a National-level emergency. Your “Test” graphic will go a long way to ease any concerns or fears, especially among the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, about the test. FEMA and the FCC are both aware of the conflict between the EAS audio message and the text message that your EAS equipment will generate. It is one of the limitations of the current EAS technology. In addition, NBA is working with state and local emergency managers so they are aware of the test and their call centers and dispatchers are prepared for any calls that may come in as a result of the test.
The test process isn’t over for broadcasters when the test ends. Stations are being asked to report back to the FCC on the results of the test, whether you received it, from whom you received it, whether you re-broadcast the test as required, the quality of the audio in the test and whether there were any problems with the test. The FCC and FEMA will compile these reports and determine what areas need improvement. The results will give both agencies a “baseline” against which they can measure changes and developments, including CAP, in future tests. The FCC has indicated that they are not interested in these reports as an “enforcement” tool, but stations should prepare now for the test, especially if you anticipate any problems receiving the test.
This National Test is also notable for who or what is NOT involved. Although they are the biggest user of EAS, the National Weather Service won’t be part of this test. NWS and NOAA Weather Radio have no way to issue a national warning across all their offices. In addition, this test will not involve the new EAS-CAP component. Not all states have their CAP servers on line yet.
Probably the most important thing you can do to prepare for the test is to make sure your station engineer and Chief Operator have time to check your EAS equipment and make sure that it is functioning properly. FEMA is conducting a series of webinars on the National test and your staff should be encouraged to participate in these and the various email listserv’s that are active right now in EAS matters. A separate, more detailed article on the National Test for engineers and Chief operators will appear in the Nevada Broadcaster.
What can we expect here in Nevada, especially in our rural areas where few or no outside signals reach our isolated communities? We will have a chance to find out ahead of time. As part of the preparation process for the National Test, FEMA will conduct a “mini-National EAS Test” in Nevada later this month. FEMA has asked a limited number of states to participate in a “dress rehearsal” to help them prepare for the National Test. The Nevada “mini-National EAS Test” will be conducted on September 26th and duplicate as much as possible the conditions of the National Test. Nevada’s test will originate at FEMA HQ in Washington DC and be sent to KKOH in Reno and KDWN in Las Vegas at a time that is yet to be determined. It will carry the event code RMT and include a brief message to help educate the public about the upcoming National EAS Test. Most of our radio and TV stations and cable operators should be able to pick up the test from their Local Primary stations and rebroadcast it as you would with any RMT. This will give us all a chance to see how successful the National Test will be in Nevada and to determine what problems we might see in the rural areas. If you have any questions about the upcoming National Test or the Nevada “mini-National Test”, please contact me.

Adrienne Abbott

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