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The 2016 National EAS Test Will Be Different

EAS alert tests planned for the full nation September 28. We'll learn how well EAS modifications work since the last national test in 2011.

It’s been five years since the last national test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS). (OK, the last national test was actually the first national test ... but, I digress.) Much has happened since the test of 2011, which broke ground because EAS had never been tested nationally even though it and its predecessors have been around since the mid-'50s.

If things go well for the 2016 national EAS test, the U.S. public should hear the “This is a Test …” announcement at about the same time Sept. 28 regardless of what they’re hearing on radio and seeing on TV. The public is certainly accustomed to EAS tests (and accustomed to ignoring them), but this will be different because they won’t be able to get away from it by switching channels.  

That’s if all goes well. In the first place, the test could be delayed if there’s some type of emergency situation going on that would make the test too distracting. If so, the secondary date is Oct. 5. And there are many pieces that have to fall into place including quite a few that have been changed since the first national test was conducted five years ago. Most significantly, a new code for controlling EAS equipment scattered across the country has been created specifically for the national test. In 2011, the only code available was the one reserved for years for the president to really activate EAS (which no president has ever done). A number of workarounds had to be created for 2011. Now, the new National Periodic Test (NPT) code is more straightforward and doesn’t treat the test as if the president had activated EAS for an actual emergency.

As well, FCC rules have been changed and equipment modified. One of the enhancements helps facilitate delivery of alerts in more than one language. More work to be done on that front, but it’s progress. In the meantime, the main EAS distribution points have been digitized and hardened.

Oh, the clock on the originating device has presumably been fixed. It was three minutes fast for the 2011 test.

Another difference between the 2011 and 2016 test is the level of public awareness prior to the test.  Because it was new and would contain a Presidential message, the public was put on wide notice that the test would occur in 2011. Otherwise, panic was a possibility. (It didn’t occur.) This time, the outreach isn’t aggressive, if even at all. The justification: The test will look and sound just like the typical monthly EAS tests (that people generally ignore). However, remember if all goes well, the test will be occurring at about the same time on all channels. Some folks may still react.

Local authorities have no reports to fill out for the 2016 test, but the EAS “participants” (broadcasters, cable companies, etc.) are required to fill out reports in short order. Supposedly the reporting process has been improved.

So, circle Sept. 28 on your calendars. Know that the test is coming, and you may get some calls. Also, watch and listen. The whole purpose of the test is to pick up on flaws. Don’t expect perfection, and keep aware of the changes that could occur as a result of the test. You may want to also join the cry for more regular national EAS tests.  

And, thanks to Al Kenyon, FEMA’s IPAWS National Test Technical Lead, who's always full of lots of good information. (The wisecracks are mine, not his.)

Rick Wimberly is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.