Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 9, 2011

This Is Only a Test

Filed under: Events,Technology for HLS — by Mark Chubb on November 9, 2011

Today at 2:00 pm EST/11:00 am PST the first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System was conducted. Many wonder why it took this day so long to come, but I suspect most who experienced it wonder whether it did any good.

These days, EAS like its predecessor, the Emergency Broadcast System, seems more like a relic of our Cold War past than an essential element of a resilient national telecommunications infrastructure designed to keep people informed. With so many people receiving information on demand through smartphones, tablet computers, their desktop machines, and other “screens,” it’s worth wondering how many people missed the test entirely and remain as blissfully unaware of the system’s efficacy as they were yesterday.

Plans to conduct today’s test have been in development for months (many more months, that is, than we have in a year or maybe even several years). As the date approached, many broadcasters complained the date was coming too quickly. In the end, when it came, the test did little to prove that the technical investments made in recent years to upgrade the system to the latest digital technology and make it compatible with the Common Alerting Protocol will pay dividends, since many participating broadcasters have still not fulfilled the FCC mandate to make changes to their equipment.

I am sure that many of those who did hear today’s test thought it was the same one they hear every week or every month and paid little attention. These local and regional tests, although mandatory for most broadcasters, have never ensured that the system will perform one of its primary functions in the event of a major disaster or national emergency. This test remedies only part of that problem.

Broadcasters are under no obligation to carry most local and regional messages. Beyond installing and testing EAS equipment,┬áparticipation — with the exception of relaying messages from the national command authority — is essentially voluntary. As such, today’s test really was the first practical test to see whether these investments might really pay-off.

Broadcasters and cable companies have 45 days to report results of the test. Early returns suggest mixed results. That said, it is not too early to ask, what next?

Efforts to rollout a next-generation Commercial Mobile Alert System via wireless (cellular telephone) carriers is already well underway. At least one service provider, it seems, has leaked test messages into the wild. Does this suggest the EAS test is too little and too late?

As citizens become more comfortable exchanging information via smartphones equipped with SMS, MMS, social media, streaming video, and GPS technology, the capacity of public safety and homeland security agencies to both transmit and receive important messages by means other than voice is increasingly outmoded as well as outdated. Investments to catch-up will likely run into the billions of dollars.

Public expectations already exceed public safety communications capabilities, especially when it comes to 911 and public warning and notifications systems. In the current fiscal and political environment, we should be asking not what we need to do about this situation, but how we will get the needed work done.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

November 9, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

First continental wide test of the EAS as you point out the old EBS and even the EAS are tested regionally periodically and in particular by the PEP stations. PEP= Primary Entry Point. For details see 47 CFR Part 11 and actually this test was statutorily mandated by PKEMRA 2006 and the the Communications title of that STATUTE. Both part of the Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2006. EMP would still probably knock this system out. EMP- electro Magnetic Pulse–either from nuclear explosion airbursts or solar pulse. Well nobody’s perfect.

Comment by EAS Requirement

November 10, 2011 @ 7:08 am

While I would like to hear the National anthem played in the middle of the day on radio stations at least a few times weekly, this EAS is a requirement for whatever we can do to better keep citizens informed, We should though at the cost of billions of dollars…well, sure for the troops are coming home and maybe finally we can spend our “bankrupted” fiat fed notes on ourselves towards our own infrastructure….

I am very confident that this test will be very welcome by the public and considered very necessary as 911 has heightened the awareness of even Citizen Joe here on “Main Street USA”!

Comment by Alan Wolfe

November 10, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

Call all you want, but there’s no one home
And you’re not gonna reach my telephone
Cause I’m out in the club and I’m sippin’ that bubb
And you’re not gonna reach my telephone

Not that I don’t like you, I’m just at a party
And I am sick and tired of my phone r-ringing
Sometimes I feel like I am in Grand Central Station
Tonight I’m not taking no calls, cause I’ll be dancin

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