The Federal Emergency Management Agency is testing the Emergency Alert System at 2 p.m. Eastern today. The EAS is the successor to the old Emergency Broadcast System. For those who remember the old EBS tests, this will be similar, though it will involve TV and radio stations at the same time — cell phone service is not yet available.
The EAS has been around since the 1990s, when it replaced the old Emergency Broadcast System — using the same basic infrastructure. And although broadcast stations have used the system before, mostly for weather alerts, this will be the first time it will be tested nationwide as a way for the President to communicate with the country during a national emergency. Even during 9/11, the system was not acivated — at the time, officials said it was because news organizations had essentially beaten them to it.
And it's the first step toward a more sophisticated, Internet-Protocol-based system that can sent alerts over cell phone networks. “Like if you are driving somewhere, it can tell you there is a tornado warning in the area,” Gregory Cooke, associate chief of the policy and licensing division with the FCC’s homeland security bureau, told Discovery News. “And using the cell-based broadcast system, it can send a text no matter who your provider is.”
The big difference between the new system and the old is automation. The FCC and FEMA are testing a feature that would allow the President's message to automatically override any normal television or radio programming that's going out. Previously if an emergency message came into a station, the people working there would have to interrupt their normal transmission to broadcast the alert.
Cooke told Discovery News that the new system uses modulated data at the beginning of the message. “It kind of sounds like the old AOL dial-up handshake.”
That data has the location and type of emergency, as well as the duration, as with a tornado warning for example. Depending on the data sent, the signal trips pre-programmed codes in a receiver at regional radio, television and cable station broadcast stations, which then transmit the message to smaller, local outlets. Each of those is connected to several more in a “pyramid” configuration.
While using radio and television sounds a little antiquated in the age of the Internet, it actually makes a lot of sense in situations where the Internet isn’t available. Also, it isn’t possible to insert a message into every Web browser across the nation.
TV viewers will see a message that says there's a test going on and hear a tone (the same one that people might remember from the old EBS tests). The test will go on for about 30 seconds. Listeners of radio stations, will hear the tone and broadcasted message.
There are still some kinks in the system to be worked out. Not every cable TV system can run the “crawl” message that says there is a test happening. The messages are also not multilingual.