Nationwide emergency alert system test for the USA

Published:  05 August, 2011

The first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System will take place November 9, 2011 at 2pm (EST).

The purpose of the test is to assess the reliability and effectiveness of the EAS as a public alert mechanism.

The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is a media communications-based alerting system that is designed to transmit emergency alerts and warnings to the American public at the national, state and local levels.

The EAS has been in existence since 1994, and its precursor, the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), began in 1963.  Television and radio broadcasters, satellite radio and satellite television providers, as well as cable television and wireline video providers all participate in the system (collectively, EAS Participants).  EAS Participants broadcast thousands of alerts and warnings to the American public each year regarding weather threats, child abductions, and many other types of emergencies.  As such, the EAS will continue to function as one key component of a national alert and warning system that will provide alerts over multiple communications platforms, including mobile communications devices.

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 Federal Communications 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.

An EAS alert is based on an audio protocol defined in the FCC’s rules. In the EAS, an alert originator at the local, state, or national level inputs an EAS alert into the system using specific encoding equipment.  Specially designated stations then broadcast this alert to the public in their listening areas.  Other EAS Participants (television and other radio broadcasters, cable and wireline video service providers, radio and television satellite service providers, and others) monitor the specially-designated stations for EAS alerts.  When these other EAS Participants receive the EAS alert, they, in turn, broadcast it to the public in their listening areas.  This group of EAS Participants may be monitored by other EAS Participants too far away to receive the EAS message from the first group of transmitting broadcasters.  This next group of EAS Participants, in turn, broadcasts the alert to the public in the vicinity of their stations, as well as to any other stations that may be monitoring them.

The EAS alerting architecture is frequently used by state and local emergency managers to send alerts to the public about emergencies and weather events.  While the requirements for carrying a national-level EAS alert differ in some respects from state and local alerts, the national EAS test will test the underlying architecture that also supports state and local alerting.  Ensuring that the EAS architecture functions properly will benefit emergency alerting at all levels of government.

The EAS provides the ability to send messages regionally or nationally, though it has never been activated at these levels.  But a major disaster like an earthquake or tsunami could necessitate the use of the EAS on a regional or national basis to send life-saving information to the public.

 

The test

The national EAS test will be conducted jointly by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through its Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service (NWS), the three federal agencies that have EAS management responsibilities. 

On November 9, at 2 PM EST, FEMA will transmit the EAS  code for national level emergencies to Primary Entry Point (PEP) stations in the national level of the EAS.  The PEP stations will then rebroadcast the alert to the general public in their broadcast vicinity, as well as to the next level of EAS Participants monitoring them.  This should continue through all levels of the system, until the national alert has been distributed throughout the entire country.

Pursuant to the FCC’s rules, all EAS Participants must report back to the FCC on the results of this test, including whether, and from whom, they received the alert message and whether they rebroadcast it.  FEMA and the FCC will study these results to determine if there are problems with the system and, if so, how best to remedy them.  We anticipate that a national test will be conducted periodically to ensure that the EAS is, and remains, functional.

FEMA and the FCC have already twice tested the EAS national code on a more limited basis, in the state of Alaska.  The lessons learned from the Alaska tests will inform how the agencies conduct the national test.

During the test, viewers will hear a message indicating that “This is a test.”  Although the National EAS Test may resemble the periodic, monthly EAS tests that most Americans are already familiar with, there will be some differences in what viewers will see and hear, which is one reason for conducting a national EAS test.

The audio message will be the same for all EAS Participants; however, due to limitations in the EAS, the video test message scroll may not be the same or indicate that “This is a test.”  This is due to the use of a “live” national  code – the same code that would be used in an actual emergency.  In addition, the background image that appears on video screens during an alert may indicate that “This is a test,” but in some instances there might not be an image at all.  FEMA and the FCC plan to conduct outreach to organizations representing people with hearing disabilities to prepare that community for the national EAS test.  Outreach will include specific information tailored to the needs of those with hearing disabilities that will be readily available at online sites. 

In addition, FEMA and the FCC will work with EAS Participants to explore whether there are solutions to address this limitation. The text at the bottom of the television screen may indicate that an “Emergency Alert Notification has been issued.”  This notification is used to disseminate a national alert and in this case, the test.

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