First Nationwide Test of Emergency Alert System Set for November 9, 2011
By Ellen Cannon
The Hearing before the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications on July 8, 2011 focused on the critical issue of “Communicating with the Public During Emergencies.” Chaired by Gus Bilirakis, (R-Florida) and Ranking Member Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Cal. ), the subcommittee examined the importance of accurate and timely information to the public during all forms of emergencies and disasters. Chairman Bilirakis stated, “Be it through television, radio, mobile devices, the internet, social media, reverse 911, or warning sirens, emergency managers and emergency response providers must have prompt and reliable means to provide information to their citizens.” The subcommittee heard from witnesses regarding advancements and challenges in alert and warning capabilities. To this end the first ever national test of the emergency alert system will take place on November 9 2011 at 2 p.m. eastern standard time.
The test will be conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Federal Communications Commissions (FCC). FEMA is announcing the test date months in advance because they “want all partners and especially the public to be aware of this test, what it means, and have plenty of time to prepare. (FEMA blog, http:/ blog, fema.gov/2011)
The test will involve broadcast radio and television stations, cable TV satellite radio and T.V. services, and wireline video service providers in all states and the territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa.
According to Damon Penn, FEMA’s assistant administrator of the National Continuity Program, “Because there has never been an activation of the Emergency Alert System on a national level, FEMA views this test as an excellent opportunity to assess the readiness and effectiveness of the current system. It is important to remember that this is not a pass or fail test, but a chance to establish a baseline for making incremental improvements to the Emergency Alert System with ongoing and future testing… While various components of the system are tested regularly, there has never been a nationwide, top-to-bottom test of the system. Also to date, there has never been a national-level or Presidential alert.” (Written testimony before the House Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications, July 8, 2011)
When the system is tested it will sound very familiar to the public. The public will hear the familiar words, “This is a test.” The message will be the same on radio and television. The test is expected to last up to three and one half minutes.
The test was given a dry run in Alaska early in 2010 based on administrative processes developed by the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau (PSHSB) in consultation with FEMA and other stakeholders interested in the Emergency Alert System.
In 2009 Chairman Genachowski of the PSHSB started promoting the national testing effort. His agency issued a report recommending that three Federal agencies responsible for the Early Alert System- the FCC, FEMA and the National Weather Service, (NWS) review the EAS testing regime to see if improvements could be made. Together with the Executive Office of the President (EOP) a working group developed a plan at the national level. This joint effort resulted in the first ever live code EAN test of the EAS’s Presidential alert and warning capacity in Alaska on January 6, 2010.
As intended the policy experts, the dry run in Alaska revealed technical weaknesses at many levels throughout the national system. EAS experts worked on the limitations for one year and a second dry run of the national alert was held in Alaska on January 26, 2011. In addition to working on technical glitches, extensive outreach in public emergency communications informing Alaskans of the pending test, took place several months prior to the test, with the assistance of the Alaskan Broadcasters Association. http:/the alaskanews.com/alaskas-staewide-natioanlevel-emergency-alert-system-tested)
The new administrative rules for the national system impose reporting requirements not present in the current state and local EAS testing process. Early Alert System participants at the state and local level will be required to record and submit to the FCC specific information regarding the time they received alert messages and their appropriate responses. This data will provide empirical documentation as to the current effectiveness and need for improvement.(www.commonlawblog.com)