WASHINGTON, DC -- When you hear that annoying modem-like tone signaling the start of an Emergency Alert System (EAS) activation, you usually expect to hear either a test message, or a severe weather warning. Thankfully, EAS has never been needed for a national-level alert. But, if we ever needed EAS for a national alert, would it work? We'll find out for sure later this year.
Plans for a national-level EAS test were first announced in February. At the time, the FCC didn't specify a date, but it did promise to provide notice "at least two months prior to the conduct of any ... national test."
On Thursday, the Commission announced (PDF file), in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), that the first-ever nationwide test of EAS will take place on Wednesday, November 9 at 2:00pm Eastern. (Although the FCC oversees lots of stuff, FEMA is the only agency authorized to initiate a national-level EAS alert.)
According to Radio & Television Business Report, a FEMA representative said, "this is not a pass or fail test," but rather a chance to make sure EAS will work as intended, if ever there arises a need to activate a national-level alert. Because EAS depends on stations to relay alerts amongst each other, a single break in the chain could have significant effects. Although redundancies in the system should prevent any massive "coverage holes" in the event of a nationwide alert, there's no way to tell for sure until they actually test it.
The November 9th test will give EAS participants (which include terrestrial broadcast stations along with satellite radio and TV providers, cable companies and other services) plenty of time to make sure their EAS equipment is up-to-date and working properly. Even if a station somehow misses out on the national-level test, the government will focus primarily on getting problems resolved, rather than penalizing stations with fines.
RBR reports the test could last as long as three and a half minutes. In the event of an actual emergency, the EAS national-level alert is intended to give the President the means to address the entire nation with little or no advance notice.
According to an FCC blog post by James A. Barnett, Jr., Chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, the system could even be used for regional emergencies -- for example "in the case of a major earth quake and tsunami on the West Coast." But because even that has never happened before, "only a top-down, simultaneous test of all components of the EAS can tell us" if EAS will work as intended.
According to Radio-Info.com and several other national trades, Salem Radio Network VP Tom Tradup has been vocal in criticizing the timing of the event, as it will "interrupt all the top-of-the-hour newscasts in America" that hour. (This is where it's tempting to take a jab at automated stations; if they were all live and local, they could simply work around the test, rather than being pre-empted by it.) It doesn't appear, so far, that the FCC will be changing the time of the test.