This will be a test

Today at 1 p.m.,  for 30 seconds every TV station and cable channel will broadcast a test of the Emergency Alert System.

The test will not sound like this:

The test is a first because there has never been a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System or its predecessor Emergency Broadcast System.

For that matter, the EAS has never been activated for a nationwide emergency. That includes 9/11, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Wall crisis, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or any other national event, including this event 46 years ago today:

It may seem like an obvious thing to have issued a nationwide EAS alert on 9/11. But what good would it have really done? It would not have been issued before the second plane hit the World Trade Center at the earliest, and by then the plot involving the two other planes was well under way. The federal government grounded every flight in the country. Issuing a nationwide EAS alert would have only generated more panic then the conclusions TV viewers were already drawing.

So what is the point of a nationwide test? According to an FCC news release, “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.”

The chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau adds:

Early warnings save lives. This was demonstrated recently and dramatically during the major earthquake and tsunami that devastated Eastern Japan. Except for Japan’s early warning systems, loss of life would have been much higher.  …

Although FCC rules require local and state components of the EAS to be tested on a weekly and monthly basis, the system has never been tested nationally end-to-end. If public safety officials need to send an alert or warning to a large region of the United States, in the case of a major earth quake and tsunami on the West Coast, for example, or even to the entire country, we need to know that the system will work as intended. Only a top-down, simultaneous test of all components of the EAS can tell us this.

Early warnings do save lives, but only if they’re heeded. The National Weather Service issued this apocalyptic (as described by the narrator) warning before Hurricane Katrina, which was not heeded by tens of thousands of New Orleans residents:

Part of the reason, as I’ve discussed before in this space, is that the National Weather Service issues more tornado warnings than they used to,which means more ignored tornado warnings. In the past, tornado warnings would be issued upon visual (by weather spotters, usually law enforcement) or radar evidence (the “hook echo”). For several years, the NWS has been issuing what I call STCOPAT warnings, for a “severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado.” (We had a personal record three visits to the basement this year, one toward the end of our German/French/Italian foreign exchange student’s visit, and another during a Story Time visit to the Ripon library.)

There have been a handful of false emergency alarms of a non-meteorological nature. Imagine yourself listening to the radio in Fort Wayne, Ind., on a Saturday morning in February 1971, when you hear this:

In June 2007, something similar happened in Illinois:

Today’s test originally was going to take 2½ minutes, but was shortened to 30 seconds. As TV Technology puts it, the Federal Emergency Management Agency “confirmed the shortening of the Nov. 9 test, but did not say specifically if the agency did so to reduce the chance of an unintended reenactment of ‘War of the Worlds.’ The change was said to be made at the direction of Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.”

I’m guessing the test was shortened to 30 seconds because of, shall we say, negative reactions. First, from The Blaze:

Only the President has the authority to activate EAS at the national level, and he has delegated that authority to the Director of FEMA.  The test will be conducted jointly by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through  FEMA, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service (NWS).

In essence, the authority to seize control of all television and civilian communication has been asserted by the executive branch and handed to a government agency. …

So this begs the question: is the first ever national EAS test really a big deal?

Probably not. At least, not yet.

But there are some troubling factors all coming together right now that could conceivably trigger a real usage of the EAS system in the not too distant future.  A European financial collapse could bring down U.S. markets. What is now the “Occupy” movement could lead to widespread civil unrest. And there are ominous signs that radical groups such as Anonymous will attempt something major on November 5th- Guy Fawke’s day.

Now we know in the event of a major crisis, the American people will be told with one voice, at the same time, about an emergency.

All thats left to determine is who will have control of the EAS when that day comes, and what their message will be.

Next, a few Free Republic posts:

I can’t see a legitimate need to cut off radio and TV in an emergency.
Quite the opposite in fact.

Of all the Presidents this one is least trusted to have such control at his fingertips. This is not good news. what will we do when all radio and television communications cease, in the event of some type of emergency? I understand there possibly could be a time it is useful. Now the programs make announcements and run bulletins and banners across the screen. This is a great deal of power for one person to hold. How would we know what is going on if it happens that all communications were to cease for a time? … we would not know the cause or purpose. Not a good situation. This happened in Germany prior/during WW11

… Like I’ve said before, there hasn’t ever been a nation-wide test of the system. Now, you could say we sort-of had one in 1971 when the idiot operator at NORAD sent the wrong message during a weekly test. If you look at the results of what happened, then the system failed miserably. Over half the country would not have known if we were under attack. This is a way for the FCC to gauge how (and if) the system will work and to take steps to fix what doesn’t.
Now, something I didn’t know…the EAS is basically a last-ditch effort to get a Presidential message out to the people, just in case the President couldn’t use the networks to talk to us.
There are some who will view this as a way for Barry the Boob to prepare to put us under martial law, but I don’t look at it as something so sinister. It really is a good idea to do this…just to make sure it works. And if in some future time he does use it to do just that, then you can say “I told you so”.

It says something about the level of distrust in the federal government and the president that a seemingly worthwhile test has sinister overtones. Then again, the term “homeland security” is rather 1984-esque. And one should be skeptical about a government agency (and I could stop the sentence right there) for its color-coded contribution to national security.

The better question to me is what nationwide value the EAS actually has. In case of natural disaster, there’s no question. But natural disasters are local in scope. Should the U.S. be subject to, say, an electromagnetic pulse attack, no one will hear a presidential EAS message. We have news media that did as good a job as possible reporting the day of 9/11, and they would do the same in the event of an event of similar scope. Knocking every TV channel off the air for a presidential message, regardless of who the president is, seems to me to be counterproductive. In an actual emergency, less communication is not better.

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Categories: media, US politics, weather | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “This will be a test

  1. Pingback: This is only a … « The Presteblog

  2. Pingback: This is only a … « The Presteblog

  3. Pingback: The Presteblog | This is a (bungled) test

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