At 2pm today, radio and television stations across the nation will run a simultaneous test of the Emergency Alert System. We revisit a conversation about how and why the system exists.


  • 13:51:32

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. In just a few minutes, our country will try something it's never done before. Now, don't get over excited, the government's not doubling everyone's wages or launching a manned mission to Pluto. What's happening is more mundane, but arguably no less important. At 2:00 o'clock, American will do its first ever nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System. As radio listeners, we're all familiar with the screech and the words, this is only a test, had this been a real emergency, well, you know the rest.

  • 13:52:03

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut what you don't know is that until today, every one of those tests was only done on a local basis. The Federal Communications Commission never asked all television and radio stations in the nation to try to test the system at the same time until today. Now, don't roll your eyes. Instead, take a moment to appreciate how important something like the Emergency Alert System can be, and remember, like fire drills, practicing what would happen before a real emergency is a good idea.

  • 13:52:34

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIOn a Tech Tuesday last month, we dug into the EAS system. Our guests were Gregory Cooke from the Federal Communication Commission's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, Kelly Williams from the National Association of Broadcasters, Ed Czarnecki from Monroe Electronics, and Bryan Fisher from the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management where a first ever statewide test was already carried out.

  • 13:53:00

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey explained how the past and future of the EAS system worked, and even talked ways new technology will soon allow us to do things that weren't even imagined before. To put it in perspective, I started by asking Gregory Cooke what circumstances would trigger a national alert.

  • 13:53:17

    MR. GREGORY COOKEWell, that, I think, Kojo, would -- has yet to be determined. As you know, and as your listeners may know, the national system has never been triggered. The system certainly has been triggered for weather alerts, Amber Alerts and other local emergencies. But the kind of national emergency, the kind of event that would require that the entire United States be notified simultaneously is a pretty extreme and fairly desperate event that we hope never occurs.

  • 13:53:48

    NNAMDIWell, let's go back 10 years to 9/11. Was the Emergency Alert System triggered?

  • 13:53:55

    COOKENo, it was not. And, at the time, certainly, the coverage that was available from the news broadcasts and the ability of the president to get on the news broadcast and local news broadcast to operate had not been impaired. And so, certainly, the best information was able to be delivered over that media. Also, as, you know, as terrible an event as 9/11 was, it was, for the purposes of the emergency response, essentially local.

  • 13:54:22

    COOKEAnd so, therefore, while everybody around the country needed be apprised of the event, emergency response of the kind that would necessitate a national alert was really not required. And one thing to remember is that this system, should it be triggered, is strictly a voice system, the one that we're testing on November 9. And while it would overtake all of the broadcast and cable that's out there, would only deliver an open audio channel from the White House, and so, therefore, only under the most extreme circumstances, would we anticipate it would ever be used.

  • 13:55:00

    NNAMDISo what circumstances would trigger a national alert?

  • 13:55:02

    COOKEWell, take a look at the beginnings of the system. I mean, this system has been around in one form or another since the Truman era and initiated with CONELRAD, which was designed to limit the amount of broadcasting available to make sure that enemy missiles were not able to target themselves based on radio frequencies. And this, by extension, allowed the president to have a channel to speak to the American public.

  • 13:55:28

    COOKEAnd then this was developed then through the '60s with the Emergency Broadcast System and then evolved into what's essentially a fairly automatic quasi-digital system with the Emergency Alert System that, nonetheless, anticipated that this was a very important event, should it occur. But again, it would be a national event. I would say, you know, nuclear war, you know, impending, you know, comets, I mean, something really quite extreme.

  • 13:55:54

    NNAMDIOne thing we all learned during that conversation, it's illegal to play the Emergency Alert System tones except during an authorized test or during a real emergency. In fact, some filmmakers in Hollywood got into trouble for including the sounds of an EAS alert in their commercial. So, to avoid trouble and hopefully to make you smile, we thought we'd bring you back to a day before those screechy tones when all stations were allowed to create their own Emergency Alert messages like this one we found on YouTube.

  • 13:57:09

    NNAMDIMakes you appreciate the tones, doesn't it? Anyway, the only big change since our conversation last month, the Federal Communication Commission's Public Safety and Homeland Security Division reduced the test from over three minutes to long to just 30 seconds, but they still wouldn't let us play the tones. So as we close out today's program, we'll encourage those who are curious to check our archives and listen to the whole Tech Tuesday discussion we had on October 11. And for everyone else, I'll just remind you within a few minutes you'll be hearing the first ever nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System. And as they say in Alaska, chill, it's only a drill, and thank you for listening.

  • 13:57:59

    NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Tayla Burney with help from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. Diane Vogel is the managing producer. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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