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Nationwide test has emergency managers, broadcasters on high alert

If your co-workers rush in from lunch to tell you that World War III is starting, tell them this:

It’s only a test.

Except … it’s not “only” a test.

For the first time in history, every radio and TV station, every cable and satellite operator, will interrupt all broadcasts, at 1 p.m. today, for a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System, or EAS. (Fans of “The Talk,” Maury Povich, “One Life to Live,” you have been warned …)

Two years in the planning, the minute-long drill is designed to expose weaknesses in a 60-year-old readiness system that has never been used — not even on 9/11.

The test is a joint venture of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Communications Commission’s Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau, headed by retired Navy Adm. James A. Barnett Jr.

“Coming from the military, what you do is you prepare for conflict,” Barnett said. “You test your system. You train your folks. When they told me this had never been tested I said, ‘How do you know it works?’ ”

An “emergency action notification” will go out to 66 “primary entry points” across the country. These are stations supplied with special equipment, including backup generators, to ensure the notification is relayed to the rest of the network. Secondary stations pass it on to tertiary stations, and so on until the alert reaches the end of the EAS network, which extends as far as Guam.

“We know there are going to be glitches in the system,” Barnett said. “We actually want to find those so we can improve them.”

Stay calm

Radio listeners who aren’t paying close attention may assume they’re hearing their station’s regular EAS test: an announcement followed by a few stutter tones.

But to those watching TV, visual elements of the test will be unique … and maybe a little ominous. A text crawl will inform viewers, “A primary entry point station has issued an emergency action notification.”

Notice the word that’s missing there? Test.

The prerecorded audio message will make clear that Armageddon isn’t underway, but that won’t help hearing-impaired viewers. So as not to alter the integrity of the test, the feds are leaving the message as is but have advised TV and cable operators to display a second graphic that reads: “There is no actual emergency.”

Kansas City’s most-watched station, KMBC-TV, is doing that, and much more. For days it has been airing an announcement in which newscaster Lara Moritz prepares viewers for today’s test. Newscasts have also included items about the EAS interruption.

“We don’t want to cause anyone needless anxiety,” said Sarah Smith, general manager of KMBC and KCWE.

Time Warner Cable will automatically switch all customers with cable boxes to Channel 5 at 1 p.m. and display a special graphic for other customers. Comcast is making similar plans, according to spokespersons for the companies.

Another concern was the original length of the test — three minutes, an eternity by broadcast standards. Some people in the industry worried it might be long enough to trigger the kind of panic caused by the 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds,” which offered an all-too-realistic depiction of Martians landing on Earth.

Last week, however, federal officials scaled back the test to 30 seconds. With station identifications added in, the entire interruption should last about a minute.

“Three minutes and we were worried about all the calls to 911,” said Bob Evans, director of emergency management for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County. “Thirty seconds, and by the time people get to the phone and decide whom to call, the test will be over.”

What good is it?

When it was set up by President Harry Truman in 1951, the alert system was meant to be a top-down chain of communication for civil defense. Truman never used it, but local emergency managers eventually realized that EAS, and blowing the old air-raid sirens, were effective ways to warn people about dangerous storms.

“The biggest use by far of EAS today is weather alerts,” said Andy Bailey of the National Weather Service office at Pleasant Hill.

The only time the system was activated coast-to-coast was in 1971 — and that was by mistake. Teletype machines came alive that morning with a bulletin that all broadcasts were to “cease immediately” for an announcement from the White House. Listeners panicked. An Air Force operator in Colorado had sent the wrong message to the alert system. A correction went out 23 minutes later.

The system has changed names twice in 60 years, from the military acronym CONELRAD to Emergency Broadcast System to EAS in 1997. But it retains much of its Cold War character.

Some observers wonder if EAS shouldn’t go the way of fallout shelters and duck-and-cover drills.

“I believe EAS is a solution in search of a problem,” says Mike Smith, author of the book “Warnings,” about the evolution of severe storm warning systems.

Smith thinks it is “nonsensical to assume President Obama or a future president will have difficulty accessing the airwaves if something bigger than September 11 occurs.”

The retired admiral has two responses to that.

First, the EAS is part of a larger network being developed that will include cell phone alerts. That system, known as PLAN (for personal localized alerting network), will launch in New York City in December.

Second, for all its redundancy and ubiquity, the Internet remains vulnerable to attacks by no-goodniks. It is possible that radio will be the last beacon for humanity in a worst-case scenario.

EAS, said Barnett, “is the backbone of our emergency system. If there are cyber attacks on our system, it’s still there. When there are power outages, it has its own power. It works when nothing else does.”

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