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January 21, 2009

Open Thread – The Emergency Alert System

by Brad Warbiany

On my way to work today, my XM radio blared the ever-familiar “This is only a test” emergency alert system. As I tried to switch to a station other than Rawdog Comedy (where a good comedy bit was playing), I realized that this discordant tone was across the entire spectrum. And I was annoyed.

Is the purpose of this system, and this test, really to disseminate critical information during a national emergency? Or is it more necessarily to make us feel good?

After all, as wikipedia reports, the only time it’s been activated in the last 10 years has been accidental, but it wasn’t activated on 9/11:

  • On September 11, 2001, “. . . the EAS was not activated nationally or regionally in New York or Washington during the terrorist attacks on the nation.” Richard Rudman, then chairman of the EAS National Advisory Committee explained that near immediate coverage in the national media meant that the media itself provided the warning or alert of what had happened and what might happen as quickly as the information could be distributed. “Some events really do serve as their own alerts and warnings. With the immediate live media coverage, the need for an EAS warning was lessened.” 34 PEP stations were kept on high alert for use if the President had decided to order an Emergency Action Notification. “PEP is really a last-ditch effort to get a message out if the president cannot get to the media.”
  • On February 1, 2005 someone inadvertently activated an EAS message over radio and television stations in Connecticut telling residents to evacuate the state immediately. Officials at the Office of Emergency Management announced that the activation and broadcast of the Emergency Alert System was in error due to possibly the wrong button being pressed. “State police said they received no calls related to the erroneous alert.”
  • On June 26, 2007, the EAS in Illinois was activated at 7:35AM CDT and issued an Emergency Action Notification Message for the United States. This was followed by dead air and then WGN-AM (720) radio (the station designated to simulcast the alert message) being played on almost every television and radio station in the Chicago area and throughout much of Illinois. The accidental EAN activation was caused when a government contractor installing a new satellite receiver as part of a new national delivery path incorrectly left the receiver connected and wired to the state EOC’s EAS transmitter before final closed circuit testing of the new delivery path had been completed.
  • On June 10, 2008, ABC Wichita, KS affiliate KAKE broadcast an EAS test during the last few minutes of the 2008 NBA Finals.

So what do you think? Is the Emergency Alert System a critical piece of infrastructure helping to enhance our national security or personal safety? Or is it a feel-good waste of time, money, and technology that simply provides a false sense that government is taking care of us?

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3 Comments

  1. It has to be a a psychological band-aid because those tests always occur when people WANT to watch TV or listen to the radio. A true test really only needs to occur in off-hours to prove the system itself works; by being during the day, it shows something is being done, but not necessarily the best thing.

    It reminds me of the time in high school I went to a college for a smart kids summer class thing. On the first night, the fire alarm went off because a belt got caught in a dryer in the basement. The college students acting as counselors told us to head to the basement because it was a tornado warning. (Don’t ask me why that was their first thought.) Sure, the system worked physically, but did it really do what it was supposed to? Not unless you count the firefighters stopping all of us high school kids and telling us to go outside instead.

    Comment by trumpetbob15 — January 21, 2009 @ 2:44 pm
  2. It’s actually a quite insecure and easily hacked system.

    Personally, I’d like to see it scrapped.

    Comment by tarran — January 21, 2009 @ 3:01 pm
  3. Feel-good leftover of the Cold War. We recently had our worst disaster in maybe 70 years here in NH – massive ice storm that knocked out power for as much as 3 weeks in parts of the state. Temps down to 20F, no heat, no phone, no water for many, all roads blocked by fallen trees for several days. Local radio stations playing pop music and Rush Limbaugh – gee, that was really helpful. And they still do the EBS test once a week……

    Comment by tfr — January 22, 2009 @ 9:15 am

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