This coming Wednesday, the FCC-regulated media in the United States will all take part in the first-ever test of the nation’s emergency warning capability.
National warning systems have been around for about sixty years. Once the Soviet Union acquired both nuclear weapons and long-range bombers, defense planners began to worry about large scale surprise attacks. They knew that bombers could navigate to their targets by homing in on radio stations located in the cities that were targeted. Thus was born Conelrad (CONtrol of ELectromagnetic RADiation) — a scheme to, in the event of an imminent attack, order the shutdown of some stations and shift all the remaining stations, all on AM, to either 640 or 1240 kHz. With only two frequencies in use over and over across the country, this would supposedly foil any attempt by the USSR to navigate bombers by AM radio, and make it possible to communicate warning information to the public over the stations that stayed on the air. This scheme was never tested.
By 1963 it was obvious that the Conelrad approach was unworkable (for one thing, intercontinental ballistic missiles did not navigate by AM radio). The FCC created the “Emergency Broadcast System,” which went through several versions of technology over the next thirty-some years. EBS introduced the idea of the government sending warning information to selected stations, which would then be rebroadcast by other stations that had radios in their control rooms tuned to the “primary” stations. Periodic tests of these station-to-station connections were the main reason radio listeners and TV viewers experienced the oh-so-serious “This is only a test” scripts that soon became part of pop culture.
EBS evolved into the “Emergency Alert System” in the mid 1990′s. The fundamental idea of government-to-station, and station-to-station, connections stayed around, but EAS provided better geographical coordination and introduced some degree of redundancy (in EBS, stations monitored only one source of incoming information, while in EAS you monitor multiple stations). But neither EBS nor EAS was ever tested on a large scale — the periodic tests have been limited to local areas, and in some places whole states (though not California).
With the advent of a new approach to dissemination of emergency information (something I blogged about here), the FCC and FEMA have decided that this is the right time to do a full-scale national test of the first-generation Emergency Alert System. The hope is to uncover any unforeseen limitations or weaknesses in the old network of communication, before finalizing plans for the new systems that will be rolling out in 2012. The FCC Chairman and the Administrator of FEMA have released a letter describing the plan for the national test, which I’ve linked here.
If everything works as planned, at 11:00 AM Pacific Standard Time (2:00 PM EST) some federal official will push a button and initiate the test. In short order every FCC-licensed radio and TV station, every video channel on every cable system, and every satellite TV and radio provider will switch away from regular programming for about half a minute (and no, they haven’t told us what will be in the test message). After the test message finishes, we all go back to regular programming and stations will file reports with the FCC about how the test went.
With the test duration being only about 30 seconds, it won’t be much more of an intrusion for KUSP listeners than our regular local area EAS tests (which take about 20 to 30 seconds to do). But it will be interesting to see how the overall alerting network behaves.