What you should know about the national EAS test

Friday - 11/4/2011, 12:09pm EDT

Jamie Barnett, chief of the public safety and homeland security bureau, FCC

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If you listen to the radio, you've probably heard the occasional buzz and beep when broadcasters test the emergency alert system.

Now, that localized system is about to go national.

After working on it for years, the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are ready to test what it calls the Nationwide Emergency Alert System — or EAS — on Nov. 9 at 2:00 p.m. EST.

The alert which will take place on both the radio and in the form of a "scroll" on TV screens is the first time the government has tested a national alert system.

And because of its unprecedented nature, government officials don't know quite what to expect, the chief of the FCC public safety and homeland security bureau, Jamie Barnett, told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Amy Morris.

Jamie Barnett, the chief of the FCC public safety and homeland security bureau. (Photo: FCC.gov)

"There's never been a test of the connectivity going out from the FEMA operations center to the 50 (or) 60 primary entry-point stations," Barnett, a retired Navy rear admiral explained. "And then that's supposed to cascade down to all the other stations, all the other cable systems — no one's ever tested that.

Because it's a test of something that's never been done before, the feds aren't necessarily expecting it to go off without a hitch. "We'll expect there'll probably be some glitches," he added. "This will allow us to identify those and work on them," he said.

Other EAS facts:

  • Designed for catastrophic events
    The EAS system is designed to alert the public of a national emergency, such as a nuclear attack or even a cyber attack against the power grid. In fact, the system is designed to work even if the power is off, Barnett said. "It's kind of the root way to notify the public of a problem," he added.

  • No social media for now
    "Your cellphone, your iPad, your computer at home will not be affected by this particular test," Barnett said. However, FCC and FEMA are planning a system that will notify the public using social media called the Personalized Local Alert Network, which will be available "in the near future," Barnett said. The technology will be fielded in a pilot in New York next month, but will not be part of the broader EAS test next week, he added.

  • Early glitch
    One of the glitches the feds are already preparing for is the fact that some cable systems will not actually visually display that the alert is only a test. To work around that, the cable industry and broadcasters have agreed to run public-service announcements before and, in some cases, after the actual test to make sure the public is fully informed, Barnett said.

  • Measuring success
    Under FCC rules, the 30,000 TV, radio and cable companies participating in the EAS are required to report back to the agency by Dec. 27 the results of the test. "We'll know some things almost immediately — that day. And we're looking to getting that data," Barnett said.