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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Emergency Alert System Nationwide Test Everything You Need To Know Is Right Here

The Emergency Alert System Nationwide Test

Everything You Need To Know Is Right Here W/UPDATE

By Dell Hill

There is much discussion these days - most especially in the social media; Facebook, Twitter, etc. - concerning a planned test of the Emergency Alert System, scheduled for 2:00 PM (Eastern Standard Time) on November 9, 2011.  

The EAS is basically the old Emergency Broadcast System that we’ve heard broadcast once each month on radio and TV for decades.  A tone alert would sound and then a local announcer (including me) would say “This is a test.  For the next 60 seconds this station will conduct a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.  This is only a test.”  There would be a few seconds of “dead air” and then a couple more alert tones, and then the announcer would say “This has been a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.  If this had been an actual emergency, you would have been instructed where to tune for emergency information.  This concludes this test of the Emergency Broadcast System”.  (Most all of us who worked in radio or TV have that message memorized!).

The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has a web page specifically devoted to the EAS (Emergency Alert System) test, and you can read it for your self by clicking on this link.  With a tremendous amount of traffic from mostly worried citizens, the site may be slow in loading.

As a public service, I’ve retrieved the key questions and answers from that site and they are posted here.  This pretty much the who, what, when, where and how of the planned November 9th EAS test.  

“At the Federal Communications Commission's June 9, 2011 Agenda meeting, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau Chief Jamie Barnett, joined by representatives from FEMA and the National Weather Service, announced that the first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) would take place at 2:00 PM (Eastern Standard Time) on November 9, 2011. The purpose of the test is to assess the reliability and effectiveness of the EAS as a public alert mechanism. EAS Participants currently participate in state-level monthly tests and local-level weekly tests, but no top-down review of the entire system has ever been undertaken. The Commission, along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will use the results of this nationwide test to assess the reliability and effectiveness of the EAS as a public alert mechanism, and will work together with EAS stakeholders to make improvements to the system as appropriate.”

What is the EAS?
   Main Article: Emergency Alert System (EAS)
The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is a media communications-based alerting system that is designed to transmit emergency alerts and warnings to the American public at the national, state and local levels. The EAS has been in existence since 1994, and its precursor, the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), began in 1963.  Television and radio broadcasters, satellite radio and satellite television providers, as well as cable television and wireline video providers all participate in the system (collectively, EAS Participants).  EAS Participants broadcast thousands of alerts and warnings to the American public each year regarding weather threats, child abductions, and many other types of emergencies.  As such, the EAS will continue to function as one key component of a national alert and warning system that will provide alerts over multiple communications platforms, including mobile communications devices.

How does the EAS work?
An EAS alert is based on an audio protocol defined in the FCC’s rules. In the EAS, an alert originator at the local, state, or national level inputs an EAS alert into the system using specific encoding equipment.  Specially designated stations then broadcast this alert to the public in their listening areas.  Other EAS Participants (television and other radio broadcasters, cable and wireline video service providers, radio and television satellite service providers, and others) monitor the specially-designated stations for EAS alerts.  When these other EAS Participants receive the EAS alert, they, in turn, broadcast it to the public in their listening areas.  This group of EAS Participants may be monitored by other EAS Participants too far away to receive the EAS message from the first group of transmitting broadcasters.  This next group of EAS Participants, in turn, broadcasts the alert to the public in the vicinity of their stations, as well as to any other stations that may be monitoring them.

Why do we need a nationwide test of the EAS?
Pursuant to the FCC’s rules, local and state components of the EAS are tested on a weekly and monthly basis, respectively.  Although the EAS has been in existence for over 15 years, there has never been an end-to-end, nationwide test of the system, and we need to know that the system will work as intended should public safety officials ever need to send  an alert or warning to a large region of the United States.  Only a top-down, simultaneous test of all components of the EAS can provide an appropriate diagnosis of system-wide performance.

On November 9, at 2 PM EST, FEMA will transmit the EAS  code for national level emergencies to Primary Entry Point (PEP) stations in the national level of the EAS.  The PEP stations will then rebroadcast the alert to the general public in their broadcast vicinity, as well as to the next level of EAS Participants monitoring them.  This should continue through all levels of the system, until the national alert has been distributed throughout the entire country.

What will people hear and see during the test?
During the test, viewers will hear a message indicating that “This is a test.”  Although the National EAS Test may resemble the periodic, monthly EAS tests that most Americans are already familiar with, there will be some differences in what viewers will see and hear, which is one reason for conducting a national EAS test.  The audio message will be the same for all EAS Participants; however, due to limitations in the EAS, the video test message scroll may not be the same or indicate that “This is a test.”  This is due to the use of a “live” national  code – the same code that would be used in an actual emergency.  In addition, the background image that appears on video screens during an alert may indicate that “This is a test,” but in some instances there might not be an image at all.  FEMA and the FCC plan to conduct outreach to organizations representing people with hearing disabilities to prepare that community for the national EAS test.  Outreach will include specific information tailored to the needs of those with hearing disabilities that will be readily available at online sites.
In addition, FEMA and the FCC will work with EAS Participants to explore whether there are solutions to address this limitation. The text at the bottom of the television screen may indicate that an “Emergency Alert Notification has been issued.”  This notification is used to disseminate a national alert and in this case, the test.

How long will the test last?
We anticipate that the test will last approximately3 minutes.  While state and local EAS messages are limited to 2 minutes, there is no time limit for national EAS alerts. To evaluate whether the system properly interprets the national message code in the national EAS test, the message duration must be longer than two minutes.

Why is the national test being conducted at this particular date and time?
While EAS tests may be disruptive, they are important to ensure that the EAS is functional and that EAS Participants are prepared to issue alerts, and it is our intent to minimize disruption and confusion to the extent possible.  The November 9 date is near the end of hurricane season and before the severe winter weather season begins in earnest. The 2 PM EST broadcast time will minimize disruption during rush hours, while ensuring that the test occurs during working hours across the United States.

Where does media communications-based alerting fit within the development of next generation alerting systems like PLAN and the availability of social networking sites as tools for emergency alerting?
Because we cannot anticipate what systems might be affected by an emergency, it is important to have a redundant, multi-platform alerting system. The EAS is designed to work when other methods of disseminating emergency alerts are unavailable.  While there is no guarantee that any form of communications will withstand major disasters, various elements of the EAS are hardened to withstand such calamities.  Moreover, the EAS uses technology that is widely accessible to the public.  Almost everyone has access to a radio (for example, in a car or via a battery-powered handheld device) and/or a television receiver.
While our ultimate goal is to have an integrated public alert and warning system that will use multiple communications technologies, the EAS will serve as a primary method for transmitting national emergency alerts and warnings for the foreseeable future.

Read the entire EAS web page FAQs (frequently asked questions) by clicking here.

And please note that this test will involve the very same radio and TV stations that have been conducting such tests for decades.  The first command to activate the EAS is given at the highest level of government and a wave of repeated signals and test messages will flow throughout the country from all of the participating stations.  It will take about three minutes to complete the test.

There are some pretty wild rumors circulating that the President has a switch in the Oval Office and he can shut off all of the radio and TV stations simply by flipping that switch.  There is a similar wild rumor that all cell phones, ipads/pods, Kindles and the entire Internet will also be shut down for at least three minutes.  I’ve even seen one incredibly crazy rumor that electricity will be shut off for three minutes in the entire country.  These rumors are simply NOT true.

The test will be conducted and about three minutes later everything on your radio and TV will return to it’s “regularly scheduled programming”.

UPDATE:  Glenn Beck can be counted among those who feel the Obama administration is "up to something" with this "shut down".  You can read about it by clicking right here.

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