The first-ever nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) took place Wednesday, Nov. 9, but it was not error free.
The goal of the test was to determine the readiness and effectiveness of the EAS as it currently exists, according to FEMA. “The national-level EAS leverages the communications support of all participating analog and digital radio, television, cable, satellite and wireline providers ... through specialized EAS equipment,” said information on the agency’s website. During the test, an alert was simultaneously sent to the country’s primary entry point stations, which relay the alert to the public and other stations in their coverage area.
According to media reports, about 15,000 radio and broadcast stations participated in the test in addition to cable and satellite providers. “Our initial feedback is that most radio and television stations ran the nationwide EAS test successfully, although some isolated glitches may have occurred,” said a statement from the National Association of Broadcasters. “We look forward to continuing to work with our federal partners to diagnose and improve the EAS system."
Although lessons learned and after-action reports are just being started, reports from local media outlets cite a variety of issues.
The Denver Post reported that at “Denver's KMGH-Channel 7, the test's warning failed to connect, then muted the channel's audio for more than two hours. At KWGN-Channel 2 and KDVR-Channel 31, viewers who use antennas had a 2 1/2-minute delay before the start of the noon test.”
In Jamestown, N.D., only about 33 percent of the stations monitored carried the EAS test, Jerry Bergquist, Stutsman County emergency manager, told The Jamestown Sun.
“We monitored two AM and two FM stations in Jamestown, two television stations from Fargo and a satellite radio provider,” Bergquist told the Sun. “The test message was on one Jamestown FM station and one Fargo television station.”
The New York Times reported that in some parts of the country, the EAS alert was replaced with Lady Gaga singing Paparazzi for some DirecTV subscribers. In addition, some Time Warner subscribers saw a home-shopping network in place of the alert.
However, federal agencies stressed that it was a test — and only a test of the EAS. “This nationwide test served the purpose for which it was intended — to identify gaps and generate a comprehensive set of data to help strengthen our ability to communicate during real emergencies,” said Damon Penn, FEMA’s assistant administrator for National Continuity Programs, in a blog post. “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.”
And in Alaska, the test wasn’t run at all on Nov. 9. Emergency Management blogger Rick Wimberly reported that Alaska chose not to participate due to strong storms that were developing nearby, which increased the possibility that the state would need to use the EAS to make a real announcement. However, Alaska did not sit out of the process. “Alaska was used as the test test (so to speak) months ago,” Wimberly wrote. “State officials and broadcasters in Alaska worked together to use the same process for conducting a statewide test that will be used [Nov. 9] for the national test.”
One criticism of the EAS is that it hasn’t evolved as technology has changed and matured. Alerts were not sent over the Internet or to cell phones, leaving many people unaware of the nationwide test. However, the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System is being developed to fill that gap in the future.