FEMA has indicated that the audio of the November 9th national EAS test is being shortened from its original two and a half minute length to thirty seconds. Originally, the government had indicated the entire test would run as long as three and a half minutes, but current indications are that the shortened audio will reduce the length of the overall EAS test to 45-60 seconds.
While FEMA’s reasoning behind the change is not currently known, I note that the National Cable and Telecommunications Association filed a request with FEMA on October 21, 2011 seeking to delay the national test because many cable systems are not ready for it. The problem is that because the proposed test will use the Presidential Emergency Action Notification code, the video will state that “This is an Emergency Action Notification,” and will not give any indication that it is a test. While the audio will make clear that it is a test, those unable to hear the audio (for example, the deaf/hard of hearing or people in a bar where the TV is on but the sound is turned down) could reasonably conclude that an actual emergency is occurring.
While TV broadcasters will generally be inserting a visual crawl indicating that it is only a test, many cable systems do not have that technical capability. NCTA has therefore asked that the test be delayed while the cable industry explores how best technically to insert a visual message over the EAS test assuring viewers that it is indeed only a test.
Given the massive amount of effort that has gone into setting up and preparing for this first ever national EAS test, as well as in notifying the public that there will be a test, delaying it could generate more confusion than just proceeding with the test. It is therefore possible that FEMA’s decision to shorten the test is a pragmatic compromise between either delaying the test or scaring the daylights out of the deaf and hard of hearing community. Presumably, a shorter message is less likely to cause confusion, as it won’t seem as unusual as an emergency message that runs for over three minutes. At a minimum, it will shorten the period of panic, as those watching will see normal programming resume in less than a minute.
Whether the system can be fully tested by the shorter message is already being debated, and some confusion is now unavoidable, given that that the public and first responders have already been told to expect and plan for a test that runs well over three minutes. At the moment, FEMA is trying to get the word out about the shortened test, hoping to reduce that confusion before November 9th arrives.
UPDATE (1:25pm): The FCC has released a new EAS Handbook in light of the shortened test. The Public Notice announcing the new handbook can be found here, and the new EAS Handbook can be found here. The Public Notice indicates that this new version supersedes the version released last week and should be used for all matters related to the November 9 National EAS Test.