This Is Only a Test

Last week, the FCC approved a plan that would create a nationwide emergency alert system using text messages on cell phones. (Sarcasm alert: How could that possibly go wrong? End sarcasm alert.) The news got me to thinking about the government’s original emergency alert plan, and its offspring.

In the early 50s, civil defense officials wanted a system that could warn the entire country in minutes if a nuclear attack was imminent. What they dreamed up was a system called “Conelrad.” In the event of a Soviet attack, all radio and TV stations were to go off the air, except for a few designated Conelrad stations across the country. These were to switch to two special AM frequencies, 640 and 1240. (The tuner dial of the first radio I ever owned, my green Westinghouse tube-type, had the civil defense triangle-in-circle logo marking those two frequencies, like all radios manufactured from 1953 to 1963.) The participating stations would broadcast news and official information, trading off every few minutes. The idea was to use stations in a variety of locations for short periods of time, so Soviet bombers couldn’t use radio signals to target cities.

Conelrad was clumsy and had technical problems. By 1963, nuclear missiles didn’t use radio guidance anymore anyhow, so the system was junked in favor of the Emergency Broadcast System. EBS linked every station in the country in a daisy chain. A few of the country’s largest stations had a direct link to Doomsday Central; medium-sized stations monitored them; small stations monitored the medium-sized ones. In the event of apocalypse, emergency information and even presidential speeches could be put on every radio and TV station in the country at the same time.

Stations were required to have EBS equipment in-house and functioning, including the gizmo that generated that metallic alert tone. (This requirement existed even though the familiar EBS test script said that stations were acting “in voluntary cooperation with federal, state, and local authorities.”) However, many stations were less than meticulous about making sure their people knew exactly how the system worked. So EBS was destined to fail in the clutch, as the daisy chain would certainly have broken down long before every station got on board. The proof came in an incident that occurred on Saturday, February 20, 1971, when a regular weekly test at Doomsday Central went haywire and stations across the country received an official alert. The error was corrected in minutes, but the fact that the system was never fully activated should have tipped somebody to the fragile nature of the enterprise. (Some fascinating stuff from a guy who was on the air that morning, including the original UPI wire bulletins, is here.)

But despite its apparent flaws, EBS remained in place for over 30 years. A station’s transmitter operator—often the DJ on the air—was responsible for making sure his station was monitoring its EBS station properly. This usually meant flicking on the little EBS monitor in the transmitter control rack to hear whether the primary station was broadcasting. At one station I worked for, we had to tune the monitor to a different station between sunset and sunrise. Once a week, stations would broadcast an EBS test. It was always done on a weekday between 8:30am and sunset, which I believe was a federal requirement. It was never done when the weather was threatening, which was purely common sense. Over the lifespan of the system, over 70 percent of EBS activations were weather related. EBS was sometimes used to alert the public to other disasters, such as chemical spills or flash floods. At some of the stations I worked for, EBS was activated for severe weather; at others, it was not—the lack of uniformity in the system was another one of its flaws. The only thing everyone agreed on was that EBS would be activated nationwide in the event of flaming nuclear death.

At bottom, in true American fashion, EBS was a very good idea that would require copious, unlikely, amounts of good will and dumb luck to succeed. Coming tomorrow: How EBS changed, and how it didn’t.

“The End of the World”/Skeeter Davis (buy it here)

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