Years of planning and preparation will finally culminate with the second-ever national Emergency Alert System test, set to be conducted today (Sep. 28) at 2:20pm ET. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Federal Communications Commission will use the one-minute exercise to determine if a series of upgrades since the last national test have fixed some of the glitches that were discovered five years ago. For broadcasters it will also require more steps than the November 2011 test.
Like engineers from coast to coast, the National Association of Broadcasters is optimistic the results will again demonstrate local radio and television’s pivotal role in a crisis situation. “We’ve had lots of time to prepare for it and our hopes are high and we think it will go well but the proof is in the test,” NAB president Gordon Smith told Inside Radio at the Radio Show conference in Nashville.
Today’s test, being administered by FEMA, will be familiar to most broadcasters, who will notice a small change in the wording. “This is a national test of the Emergency Alert System—this is only a test,” the alert will say. On the backend, the EAS decoders will be fed the newly created National Periodic Test (NPT) six zero (000000) code that planners think will resolve some technical problems that sprung up in 2011.
“This test will be an opportunity to assess the readiness of America’s core public alert and warning infrastructure,” says Lisa Fowlkes, deputy chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. “It is critical that this infrastructure remains capable of providing timely and accurate information to the public in a range of emergencies—whether it’s extreme weather, a missing child or a terrorist attack. In these and other crises, the rapid dissemination of authoritative information can save lives.”
Unlike five years ago, the FCC has created a more formal system for tracking the alert’s distribution by requiring stations to set up accounts in the new EAS Test Reporting System. Following today’s activation, stations will then have until 11:59pm ET tonight to file the brief post-test report, the so-called “Form Two” that will simply ask whether a station received the EAS message and whether it was able to retransmit the alert.
The more detailed “Form 3” report, which stations will have until Nov. 14 to submit, will cover a number of additional questions. They include such things as what was the source of the EAS message and through which source did the station’s equipment first receive the alert. The FCC will also ask about complications, such as failure to receive alert user codes, audio quality issues, equipment problems and user error issues.
FCC attorney Austin Randazzo says the agency sees this as an opportunity to troubleshoot problems, not to assume everything works perfectly. “We want to make sure the system works and has been strengthened—that’s the purpose of the test,” he said last week in Nashville. Randazzo also noted the FCC has also been doing its own preparation, conducting “stress tests” on its computer systems to ensure servers can handle the crush of thousands of stations filing reports with the agency.
During the past several years FEMA has added an additional 35 Primary Entry Point, or “PEP” stations that increase the likelihood they will detect the activation through the traditional “daisy chain” station-to-station distribution. The government has also worked with equipment manufacturers to fine-tune EAS specifications and develop ways to avoid such issues as the audio quality and looping sound problems that plagued the 2011 national test.
FEMA and FCC officials say periodic testing helps to assess the “operational readiness” of the EAS system and figure out where any additional “technological and administrative improvements” need to be made. The agencies are especially interested in determining if the next-generation common alerting protocol-based, or “CAP-based” alerts are properly disseminated to stations, as they were designed to be. Since it is one potential solution to the problem of how to send alerts in multiple languages, the national EAS test will be transmitted in both English and Spanish and will include both audio and the text of the test message.
FEMA national test technical lead Al Kenyon told the Radio Show that a regional EAS test with willing volunteers interested in the issue typically shows 2%-3% of stations run into technical problems. He thinks that number will be higher today. “I would expect that number to probably double since with this test we are sweeping up everybody,” he said, predicting more like 4%-5% of stations are likely to encounter technical snafus.
In addition to taking part in the national test, today is also the FCC’s deadline requiring all stations have a copy of the newest EAS Operating Handbook on hand. The agency says the handbook must be located at normal duty positions or near EAS equipment when a test is being administered. The handbook’s new format was designed by broadcasters, equipment manufacturers and regulators in a format that will allow each station to enter specific data to create their own tailored version of the document, showing the operational steps necessary for that station.
While this national test will include radio, broadcast television, cable TV systems and satellite services, it won’t include Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). But Kenyon expects today’s test begins what will be a more routine national test program. “It’s not going to be another five years before we test again,” he predicted.