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Breaking In the EAS System

By and

In its various incarnations — CONELRAD, the Emergency Broadcast System, the Emergency Alert System, and soon, the EAS CAP system — America’s public warning system has much in common with a vintage automobile that has been taken out of the garage only for short trips. In those short trips (mostly state and local tests and alerts), it has performed adequately, but until this week’s national test, we never had a chance to take it out on the open road and see what it could really do.

Now that the first national EAS test is behind us, we know that the system isn’t broken, but that it definitely will benefit from this breaking in process. That process, which necessarily includes extensive analysis of this week’s test, will reveal numerous ways in which the system can be tweaked for better and more reliable performance under open road conditions. The basic system appears to have run fine; the message got out to the public (though obviously better in some locations than others).

Unlike the relative simplicity of an automobile, however, the EAS system is one of the largest pieces of machinery in the world, having immense geographic scope and a staggering number of components. Getting all of those components to function smoothly together is a complex task that requires much more effort than the typical automotive tune up. Its performance grows more impressive when you remember that most of those components are independently (and privately) owned and operated, and are not supported by federal funding. The EAS system is perhaps the ultimate public-private partnership.

While it is too early to provide a detailed assessment of the areas where the functioning of the system went astray, as we indicated previously, the purpose of the test was to help FEMA, the FCC, and EAS Participants determine the reliability of the EAS system and where it needs improvement, and the test certainly accomplished that. There were a number of issues uncovered with regard to cable and satellite alerts, as well as individual radio and television stations in Oregon and a number of other locations apparently not receiving the test, excessive background audio noise in the test message, some television stations receiving video but no audio, and header codes apparently being sent twice. While the press has understandably focused on areas where problems arose, initial reports seem to indicate that the alert was heard in the vast majority of locations, and that the next area to focus on is ensuring that the content of the alert itself is clear and understandable to the public.

According to the FCC, it and FEMA will now use the results of the test “to identify gaps and generate a comprehensive set of data to help strengthen our ability to communicate during real emergencies. Based on preliminary data, media outlets in large portions of the country successfully received the test message, but it wasn’t received by some viewers or listeners. We are currently in the process of collecting and analyzing data, and will reach a conclusion when that process is complete.”

EAS Participants should remember that just because the national test is over, their work is not done. As we discussed in October, the FCC is encouraging online reporting of each Participant’s test results as soon as possible and has mandated that the information be submitted to the FCC no later than December 27, 2011 (either online or on paper).

In the meantime, that noise you hear coming from the nation’s garage will be thousands of EAS Participants, EAS equipment manufacturers, and government officials tuning and tweaking the EAS system for its next run on the open road.