No national alarms

How the U.S. Emergency Alert System works—and doesn't

When terrorists struck Sept. 11—the closest this nation had come to a national emergency on its own turf—it was not enough to sound the national alarm, the Emergency Alert System.

You know them by their ear-piercing tests, and viewers across the country see and hear EAS alerts occasionally, particularly in the Midwest during tornado season. Local and state governments also warn of hazardous-material leaks, prison breaks or other crises through EAS alerts.

But not once has the warning been activated nationally. Not even on Sept. 11.

"There was no identifiable major threat to the entire country," said Richard Rudman, director of engineering for KFWB(AM) Los Angeles and head of the FCC's Emergency Alert System National Advisory Council's Coordinating Council for Local Stations.

"At the national level, the system was designed for the president to talk to the people, if all other means of communications didn't work. It could be argued that the president was out of touch for awhile on Sept. 11. But had the president needed to talk to the public, he wouldn't have needed the EAS."

Precisely: In fact President Bush addressed the nation as presidents always have in the media age: Over radio and broadcast and cable television networks, or through the surrogacy of the press corps.

Which raises questions not only of relevance but of redundancy. As FCC Chairman Michael Powell noted in a radio interview last month, "The explosion of 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week media networks, the unbelievable ubiquity of coverage in some ways has proven to supplant those original conceptions of a senior leader's need to talk to the people. ... This sort of ubiquitous media environment and culture that we live in really provides pretty valuable vehicles for our leadership to communicate with the citizenry, short of the Emergency Alert System."

Even as a weather monitor, EAS has rivals. Most TV stations (and many radio stations) can track in real-time the path of a tornado or hail storm with the latest Doppler radar and other meteorological gizmos.

Under EAS rules during times of nationwide emergency—think nuclear war—broadcasters are required to air any presidential address over the system or cease programming and direct viewers to stations carrying the address.

Generally TV stations and "clear channel" radio stations (those broadcasting at 50,000 watts, not stations owned by the company by that name) make up the network of national primary sources that would be required to carry the president's message. Connections to the president would be made through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs EAS and also helps state and local authorities as they develop their emergency plans.

The venerable EBS, known best to audiences for its weekly and monthly fingernail-on-chalk-board signal test and monthly tests and the admonition, "This is only a test ...," was overhauled in 1997 to create today's alert system. Today the weekly test is now merely an eight-second digital data signal used to test the EAS equipment. FEMA, in fact, was scheduled to hold its monthly tests during the week of Sept 11.

Tim Putprush, FEMA's emergency alert program manager, realized that the anxiety created by the attack could push people across the country into a panic if they heard the tests and understandably believed they were experiencing the real thing.

"Because of our lack of experience with a real national disaster, we discovered there was no plan for turning off regular testing," Putprush said. After sending notices to all the major TV and radio stations he asked the FCC to absolve stations of any penalty for suspending tests through Oct. 2. Regular tests have since resumed.

The genesis of EAS was CONELRAD, an alert system created in 1949 to ensure that President Truman could address the American people following a nuclear attack. In the 1950s the system was transformed into the Emergency Broadcast System to add weather alerts. Beginning in 1963, President Kennedy permitted state and local-level emergency information to be transmitted via EBS.

While broadcasters have supported the system, EAS does have its share of controversy. The National Association of Broadcasters is lobbying the FCC make cable operators better protect local broadcasters' emergency signals. Because most cable programming is generated by national feeds, systems cannot add local EAS messages as a crawl at the bottom of the screen.

Instead cable messages pre-empt ongoing programming. That's fine when you're cutting into Animal Planet or HBO, broadcasters say, but it also pushes local channels' weather reports off the air. The NAB, over the cable industry's protests, is urging the FCC to require each system to install $10,000 filters that would prevent the EAS signals cable operators receive from overriding local channels.

But when disaster hits, not everyone can be counted on to be sitting in front of a TV screen, news channel or not. In homes and on highways, thousands of people may be best reached by radio, which in many markets lacks the news product of television.

Los Angeles engineer Rudman envisions a system that takes advantage of state-of-the-art technology to create a system that communicates over set-top boxes, cell phones and other personal communications devices, not just radio and TV. Such equipment would carry an "e-chip" that Rudman said would be the equivalent to the Information Highway's "emergency lane."

"We have to think about the unthinkable. We need a warning system. There are many threats that can be silent. There may be a toxic gas cloud in the air and it's all over TV and radio but it's 3:40 a.m. and I'm asleep."