Don't panic: Nationwide test of emergency alert system set for Nov. 9

The first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System, set for Nov. 9, will see how the country handles sensory deprivation, even if for a little while.

It’s not likely to cause a “War of the Worlds”-type panic or anything, but the Federal Communications Commission will shut down TV and radio programming on Nov. 9 — broadcast, cable, satellite — in the first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System.

The test will start at 2 p.m. Eastern time and last about 30 seconds, according to the FCC. No sports yak, no political yak, no soap operas, no “Beverly Hillbillies” reruns. Nothing. Anywhere, coast to coast. For 30 seconds, maybe, gulp, even longer.

So in addition to testing the system, the FCC will see if the daytime TV-watching and radio-listening public can hold its collective breath for that long all at once. The FCC originally had said the test could last three-and-a-half minutes, which might have gotten people a little panicky, but 30 seconds seems doable.

The EAS has been tested locally since 1994, when it began replacing the old Emergency Broadcast System, but it has never had a nationwide test before, which the FCC says is necessary to find out if it will work in the event of an emergency.

“Only a top-down, simultaneous test of all components of the EAS can provide an appropriate diagnosis of system-wide performance,” the FCC says.

The test is a joint operation of the Homeland Security Department, which administers the system through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the FCC and National Weather Service, which also have responsibility for EAS management. To date, EAS alerts have been used locally for a variety of emergencies, most often weather alerts, the FCC says.

Although a 30-second test isn’t likely to start a panic, the FCC has noted that some TV screens might not say, “This is a test,” and some might not show an image at all, because of limitations in the system. The audio message will be the same for all, however, and the FCC and FEMA have been working to make the public aware that it’s coming.

And Comcast has told  customers that the test could cause interference with some programming, cause an interruption or loss of DVR recordings, or result in an EAS message that lasts longer than five minutes, forcing customers to reboot their cable boxes.

The nationwide test expands a practice that dates to the Cold War-era EBS, which was started in 1963 and ran regular local-station tests. Usually this took the form of a test pattern on screen accompanied by a grating, high-pitched tone that meant: a. it was a test, which they would tell you pretty soon; b. the national was under nuclear attack; or c. “The Outer Limits” was coming on.

The tests became routine, although a false alarm was sent out on Feb. 20, 1971, when a teletype operator played the tape for a real emergency instead of a test, and the mistake wasn’t corrected for 40 minutes. Several stations went off the air, while others stayed on, broadcasting as though they were in the midst of an emergency. A recording from station WOWO in Fort Wayne, Ind., recounts the station interrupting a Partridge Family song to report the emergency, and await further information that didn’t arrive.

The mix-up was somewhat reminiscent of Orson Welles’ famous 1938 radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds,” which was presented documentary-style as a series of news bulletins (and without commercials), and caused a scare among some people who tuned in after the start and thought the events were real (although some accounts of widespread panic as a result of the broadcast appear to be exaggerated).

The Nov. 9 test probably won’t cause any real disruption but to have the country’s broadcast/cable/satellite communications all go silent at once is a pretty significant moment. Just remember: This is a test.
 

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