(Part two of two. Part one is here.)
The Emergency Broadcast System was rendered obsolete in the mid 90s by several factors, chief among them the end of the Cold War and the theoretical easing of the nuclear threat. Also, radio technology had advanced to where there were fewer live bodies at radio stations to receive emergency alerts and throw the proper switches. So EBS was put out to pasture in 1994, replaced by the Emergency Alert System (EAS). EAS is almost completely automated, and its tests require no scripted announcements. You have probably heard the brief bursts of tone that drop randomly into your favorite station’s programming.
Among the factors the FCC cited in 1994 when revamping the system was the problems EBS had suffered due to operator error. Alas, EAS is similarly fragile. Early on, individual stations had trouble with it. As recently as January 2007, a nationwide test intended to activate the system broke down almost from the start. Three of the 34 primary stations in the system failed even to get the test started, with predictable consequences down the line.
In addition, uncertainty over when EAS should be activated remains a problem. For example, it was not activated during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, although government officials later claimed such activation was unnecessary due to immediate media coverage of the attacks. The sometimes-yes, sometimes-no pattern of activations for severe weather continues around the country as well. Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that EAS has improved the weather warning system somewhat. Many stations around the country use it to link directly to their local National Weather Service office. This permits automatic activations for severe weather, especially helpful during the hours when stations tend to be unstaffed. Of course, it doesn’t always work. If it did, no one would remember the infamous 2002 incident in Minot, North Dakota, when a chemical spill threatened the city. Local authorities issued an EAS alert, but the equipment failed, requiring them to go about it the old-fashioned way. Placing phone calls to each of the six local stations, the authorities discovered that there wasn’t a single live body on duty at any of them. The story is often told to bash Clear Channel, owner of the six local stations, but as Slate explained last year, EAS deserves the blame first. And even if EAS were to work perfectly, during a truly transcendent catastrophe, events could easily outrun it—during Hurricane Katrina, many stations along the Gulf Coast failed to activate before the hurricane knocked them off the air.
The old EBS test script talked about the individual station’s “voluntary cooperation” in the system. In the end, that’s what the success or failure of EBS and EAS comes down to. Shortly after the debut of EAS, the station I worked for at the time posted a sternly worded memo from the chief engineer, warning us that we’d better learn to operate EAS properly or else. What we never got was a memo telling us how to do it. As with everything else in radio, what makes it work in any given community is how willing are that community’s stations to make it work.