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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

OAS - The Obama Alert System

Hard on the heels of Obama’s announcement that he will seek other ways to implement his Jobs Bill, other than through Congress, that is to say, by fiat, and that he’s essentially forgiving all student loans, is the announcement by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that there will be a national test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS).

Normally, the test is required of stations on a weekly basis, once in the morning and once at night.  All television, radio, satellite, wireless and other networks must perform the test.  The EAS replaces the old Emergency Broadcast System, which was instituted in 1963, after the Russian missile crisis.

That the government wants to test this system is, perhaps, understandable.  After all, it was only implemented 14 years ago.  They finally decided we needed to hear what it sounded like.  The test comes just in time, as Iran is placing nuclear warheads in Venezuela, while Obama himself has drastically reduced and undermined our nuclear capability.  Despite common belief, nuclear warheads don’t last forever.  Like batteries, they can degrade and lose their oomph.

The FCC, in conjunction with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service (NWS), implements the EAS at the federal level. The President has sole responsibility for determining when the EAS will be activated at the national level, and has delegated this authority to the director of FEMA.  FEMA is responsible for implementation of the national-level activation of the EAS, tests, and exercises. The NWS develops emergency weather information to alert the public about imminent dangerous weather conditions.

The FCC's role includes prescribing rules that establish technical standards for the EAS, procedures for EAS participants to follow in the event The EAS is activated, and EAS testing protocols. Additionally, the FCC ensures that the EAS state and local plans developed by industry conform to FCC EAS rules and regulations.

The Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) was an emergency warning system in the United States, used from 1963 to 1997, when it was replaced by the Emergency Alert System.

The Emergency Broadcast System was established to provide the President of the United States with an expeditious method of communicating with the American public in the event of war, threat of war, or grave national crisis.  It replaced CONELRAD on August 5, 1963.   In later years, it was expanded for use during peacetime emergencies at the state and local levels.

Although the system was never used for a national emergency, it was activated more than 20,000 times between 1976 and 1996 to broadcast civil emergency messages and warnings of severe weather hazards.  Some dramatic works depicting nuclear warfare (most notably the 1983 made-for-TV film The Day After) included fictionalized scenes of EBS activations. Occasionally the EBS would be shown in fictionalized use for events other than nuclear warfare, such as the 1978 film Dawn of the Dead.

An order to activate the EBS at the national level would have originated with the President and been relayed via the White House Communications Agency duty officer to one of two origination points: either the Aerospace Defense Command or the Federal Preparedness Agency—as the system stood in 1978. Participating telecommunications common carriers, radio and television networks, the Associated Press and United Press International would receive and authenticate (by means of code words) an Emergency Action Notification via an EAN teletypewriter network designed specifically for this purpose. These recipients would relay the EAN to their subscribers and affiliates.

The release of the EAN by the ADC or FPA would initiate a process by which the common carriers would link otherwise independent networks such as ABC, CBS and NBC into a single national network that even independent stations could receive programming from.  Broadcast stations would have used the two-tone Attention Signal on their assigned broadcast frequency to alert other broadcast stations to stand by for a message from the President.   Note that the transmission of programming on a broadcast station's assigned frequency, and the fact that television networks/stations could participate, distinguished EBS from CONELRAD.   EBS radio stations would not transmit on 640 or 1240 AM, and television stations would carry the same audio program as AM radio stations.

Actual activations originated with a primary station, which would transmit the  Attention Signal (help·info). The Attention Signal most commonly associated with the EBS was a combination of the sine waves of 853 and 960 Hz, an interval suited to getting the audience's collective attention. Decoders at relay stations would sound an alarm, alerting the station operator to the incoming message. Then each relay station would broadcast the alert tone and rebroadcast the emergency message from the primary station.

A nationwide activation of the EBS was called an Emergency Action Notification (EAN). This was the only type of activation which broadcast stations were not allowed to ignore; the FCC made local civil emergencies and weather advisories optional (except for stations that had agreed to be the “primary” source of such messages).

To activate the EAN protocol, the AP and UPI wire services would notify stations with a special message. It began with a full line of X's, and a bell inside the Teletype machine would sound ten times. To avoid abuse and mistakes, the message included a confirmation password which changed daily.  Stations that subscribed to one of the wire services were not required to activate the EBS if the activation message did not have proper confirmation.

Until the system was superseded, radio and television stations were required to perform a Weekly Transmission Test Of The Attention Signal and Test Script on random days and times between 8:30 A.M and local sunset.  Stations were required to perform the test at least once a week and were only exempt from performing the test if they had activated the EBS for a state or local emergency or participated in a coordinated state or local EBS test during the past week.

Additionally, stations were required to log tests they received from each station they monitored for EBS messages. This served as an additional check, as they could expect to hear a weekly test from each source. Failure to receive a signal at least once a week meant that either the monitored station was having a problem transmitting the alert signal, or the monitoring station was having a problem receiving it.

Early in the history of the EBS, tests and activations were initiated in a similar way to CONELRAD tests.  Primary stations would turn their transmitters off for five seconds, back on for five seconds, off for five seconds more, then would go back on air and transmit a 1000 Hz tone for 15 seconds to alert secondary stations. This quick off-and-on became known to broadcast engineers as the "EBS Stress Test", as older transmitters would sometimes fail after the quick cycling on and off.   This became unnecessary as broadcast technology advanced and the two-tone alarm was developed.

In 1976, the old Conelrad signaling method (the “EBS Stress Test”) was scrapped in favor of the following procedure:

1) Normal programming was suspended. Television stations would transmit a video slide such as the one illustrated at the beginning of the article. One of the following announcements written below was transmitted:

“This is a test. For the next sixty (or thirty) seconds, this station will conduct a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test.”

“(name of host station in a particular market) is conducting a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test.” (Mainly radio stations used this particular announcement)

“This is a test.  This station is conducting a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test.”

“The following is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.”

2) The Attention Signal was transmitted from the EBS encoder for 20 to 25 seconds. At the special request of the FCC, however, this step was occasionally (though rarely) skipped.

3) The announcement written below (depending on the variation) was transmitted. The first part read:

“This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. The broadcasters of your area in voluntary cooperation with the FCC and other authorities (or, in later years, ‘federal, state and local authorities’) have developed this system to keep you informed in the event of an emergency.”

There were a number of variations for the second half of the statement. During the early days of the system, stations other than the designated primary station for an operational area were required to shut down in the event of an emergency (reminiscent of the CONELRAD days), and the message was a variation of:

“If this had been an actual emergency, you would have been instructed to tune to one of the broadcast stations in your area.”
“If this had been an actual emergency, you would have been instructed where to tune in your area for news and official information.”

By the early 1980s, as it became easier for stations to record and relay messages from a primary station, and the risk of hostile bombers using broadcast signals to navigate lessened due to the development of ICBMs, the requirement to shut down in the event of an activation of the system was dropped, and the message became:

“If this had been an actual emergency, the Attention Signal you just heard would have been followed by official information, news or instructions.”

As the EBS was about to be replaced by its successor, the aforementioned Emergency Alert System, some stations used the following variant:

“This station is testing its Emergency Broadcast System equipment. The EBS will soon be replaced by the Emergency Alert System; the EAS will provide timely emergency warnings.”

The test concluded with one of the following phrases:

“(sponsoring station in a particular market) serves the (name of operational area). This concludes this test of the Emergency Broadcast System.”

“This station serves the (name of operational area). This concludes this test of the Emergency Broadcast System.”

These variations were heard in different parts of the country throughout the years depending on FCC regulations at the time, local preferences, and whether the specific station performing the test was a primary EBS station or not. At least one version made explicit reference to an attack on the United States as being a possible scenario for EBS activation. The announcement text was mandated by the FCC.

Stations had the option of either reading the test script live, or using recorded versions. WHEN radio in Syracuse, New York had a sung version of the most common script.  The FCC declared it illegal to sing the test message, or read it as a joke. However, it was acceptable to read it in another language (for example, French or Spanish), if a station broadcast in it. Copies of the warning message script had a note saying that it was acceptable to broadcast in any other language, so long as it was broadcast in English as well.

The purpose of the test was to allow the FCC and broadcasters to verify that EBS tone transmitters and decoders were functioning properly. In addition to the weekly test, test activations of the entire system were conducted periodically for many years. These tests showed that about 80 percent of broadcast outlets nationwide would carry emergency programming within a period of five minutes when the system was activated. The weekly broadcasts of the EBS attention signal and test script made it a significant part of American Cultural fabric of its time, and became the subject of a great number of jokes and skits, e.g. the sung versions of the test script in the late 70's.

Several people have testified about being frightened by the test patterns as children, and actual emergencies scared them even more. 

The Blaze recently reported that at 2 p.m. EST on Wednesday, November 9th, The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Communications Commission will conduct the first-ever national test of the Emergency Alert System, where radio and televised broadcasts across the country will be disrupted for roughly…three-and-half minutes:

During the upcoming test, an audio message will likely recite, “this is a test” while text at the top of the screen might read that an “Emergency Alert Notification has been issued.”  While emergency broadcast tests are typically used by state and local governments to issue severe weather alerts and other emergency information, there has never been a nationwide activation of the system before. Federal agencies cite the reasons for the national test are to ensure emergency preparedness and to pinpoint flaws in the new EAS system.”

The EAS is a national public warning system that requires broadcasters, cable television systems, wireless cable systems, satellite digital audio radio service (SDARS) providers, and direct broadcast satellite (DBS) providers to provide the communications capability to the President to address the American public during a national emergency. The system also may be used by state and local authorities to deliver important emergency information, such as AMBER alerts and weather information targeted to specific areas.

EAS instructions vary for each particular designation. Broadcast stations are designated as either participating or non-participating stations. Most broadcast stations have elected to participate in EAS and are designated as Participating National (PN) stations. A small number of broadcast stations, however, have elected not to participate in the national level EAS and hold an FCC authorization letter to that effect. Non-participating stations are designated as Non-Participating National (NN) stations.

The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is a national warning system in the United States put into place on January 1, 1997, when it superseded the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), which itself had superseded the CONELRAD System. In addition to alerting the public of local weather emergencies such as tornadoes and flash floods, the official EAS is designed to enable the President of the United States to speak to the United States within 10 minutes, but the nationwide federal EAS has never been activated.  The EAS regulations and standards are governed by the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau of the FCC.  Each state and several territories have their own EAS plan.  EAS has become part of IPAWS - the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, a program of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  EAS is jointly coordinated by FEMA, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the National Weather Service (NOAA/NWS).

The EAS is used on AM, FM and Land Mobile Radio Service, as well as VHF, UHF and cable television including low-power stations. Digital television and cable providers, along with Sirius XM satellite radio, IBOC, DAB and digital radio broadcasters have been required to participate in the EAS since December 31, 2006.  DirecTV, Dish Network and all other DBS providers have been required to participate since May 31, 2007.

The EAS is audio-only; no visual.  Some critics say that news stations are much better equipped to deliver news of emergencies than EAS.  Many broadcasters and First Amendment defenders worry, particularly with this president, whether the power to take over the airways will be abused.  What constitutes an “emergency” in this president’s mind, who has stripped us of our nuclear defenses, supervised the tanking and subsequent take-over of our banks and economy, champions the redistribution of wealth, publicly declared that he would completely dispense with the U.S. Constitution, and created a fiat army of bureaucrats to implement his orders and policies, like an emperor of ancient Rome.

Rioters are openly and brazenly “occupying” our public streets and parks, with the understanding that while they’re there, no one else can assume the public podium, or do so only at risk of physical harm from OWS’ union thugs.  Zoocotti Park essentially belongs to the Occupiers.  If violence breaks out, as has happened in Europe, if someone like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh or Fox News tries to report on the mania, will the president simply override them?  He’s already bypassed Congress on a number of issues.  If our country is attacked by, say Iran, instead of ordering a counterstrike, will he simply stand back and allow it to happen, and commandeer the airwaves until it’s all over (which wouldn’t take long) and no one can do anything about it?

Remember Nancy Pelosi telling us we wouldn’t find out what was in the 2,000-plus page Healthcare Bill until it was passed?  In making the announcement, Glenn and other broadcasters sounded rather alarmist in light of the fact that we’ve been accustomed to the Emergency Broadcast System for years without it ever having been used.  Wouldn’t a test, at some point make sense?

Still the timing is odd, after 14 years.  Yet, that always seems to be when you should be most alarmed; when something bad and dangerous makes sense and warnings against it sound shrill.  That’s when the alarm bells in our heads should go off.

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