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

Mark Clayton

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.

IN PICTURES: US natural disasters of 2011

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 tornados 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 countries 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 from 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."

IN PICTURES: US natural disasters of 2011

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