“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.” If you’re a child of the Cold War, you can probably recite the whole EBS test script, which was inescapable on radio and TV from the 60s to the 90s, broadcast weekly on every station. The Emergency Broadcast System and its predecessor, Conelrad, were devised for use in case of a national emergency, such as a Soviet missile attack. It would allow emergency information to be broadcast on every radio and TV station in the country simultaneously. Local stations also began to use it for local emergencies, such as natural disasters, but its main purpose was to alert us to Doomsday.
EBS went the way of the dodo in 1997, replaced by the Emergency Alert System (EAS). The profile of EAS is lower. Stations still test it weekly, but the tests are frequently dropped into programming without any introductory or closing announcement, often interrupting a song, a talk-show host in mid-sentence, or a TV program in mid-plot. It’s likely that millions have heard the EAS tones without understanding precisely what they represent. And I wonder whether the relative anonymity of the Emergency Alert System isn’t going to come around to bite it squarely in the ass on Wednesday, November 9, 2011, at 1:00 in the afternoon (US Central), when the system gets its first-ever nationwide test.
You can read FEMA’s press release here, and a discussion of the test from FEMA’s blog here, so I’m not going to spend time explaining what the test will involve. It’s going to run for several minutes, unlike the weekly and monthly tests that run for only a few seconds on radio stations, TV stations, cable systems, and satellite radio, so it’s going to get a lot of attention. I submit that the test has the potential to go wrong in a couple of different ways.
The paranoid right is already going apeshit, suggesting that “the government is taking over the communications system” for three minutes on November 9 for some nefarious Obama-driven purpose, sometimes adding the falsehood that power supplies or Internet access will be cut at the same time. This is nonsense. For more than 30 years, Conelrad and EBS worked pretty much the same way EAS does, linking stations together in a daisy chain, small ones monitoring bigger ones monitoring bigger ones up the line to Doomsday Central. (Glenn Beck, a former top 40 DJ who should know better, has been particularly dimwitted in his “analysis” of the test.) Nevertheless, there will be a great deal of ginned-up concern about the test beforehand and speculative spinning afterward.
It will be interesting to see what happens during the test, which is supposed to be clearly marked as a test. The FEMA press release ominously notes that some TV viewers may not see the video scroll intended to accompany the audio message. And because we’re so distracted on a daily basis, lots of people are going to hear this strange thing with one ear, miss that it’s a test, and immediately jump to conclusions. It may not be like War of the Worlds in 1938, but it would be a shocker if nobody panicked.
Whether the nationwide test itself will be completed successfully, broadcast on every single outlet, is another question. I seem to recall reading someplace that a similar nationwide test performed in either Conelrad or EBS days broke down before linking the entire country. In February 1971, the system was activated in error, causing some radio and TV stations to mistakenly report that a national emergency had been declared. The fact that the alert was not broadcast coast-to-coast on that day indicates to me that the system may not have operated as advertised in the event of an actual emergency. But Conelrad and EBS depended on human operators—EAS is automated, which points toward a higher chance for success, even as it contributes to the paranoia about a “government takeover” of the airwaves.
When FEMA announced the test earlier this year, they scheduled it for early November, intending it to fall after hurricane and tornado season and before winter. But it was impossible to schedule around other potential obstacles to a successful test, so tune in next Wednesday and see if it works.