Thursday, October 27, 2011

National EAS -- Again

The news has crept out and, finally, dribbled into the more-worriable Right: Uncle Sam's gonna try to blow the dust off the national-level mechanisms of the Emergency Alert System, with a test of three-and-a-half minutes duration. It's only that long because they're concerned the three-minute audio buffer in some units may not fail gracefully and they want to find out.

That might not be the headline you saw; the examples I have seen range from "One Man Can Shut Off U.S. Broadcasting?" and escalate from there.

I'm usually pretty coy about what I do for a living but let's just say -- 'cos it's true -- that I have been in virtual attendance at every FEMA teleconference for this test and I know how the hardware works; I've installed a dozen of the things over the years. (They're commercially made by 5 or 6 companies, by the way; Uncle Sam just defines the alert tone and data bursts. You could look up the dope in 47CFR, Parts 70-79 and build your own -- but why?)

At the most invasive, EAS hardware can include an "interrupt box" that grabs the audio going to the transmitter. That's all the control it's got; the station could beat it with a patch cord or, at worst, a pair of side-cutters.

But it hasn't even got that much control; the devices can be operated in "automatic" or "manual." Most are kept in manual because in automatic, when they get an alert for their area or a relayable test, they do just "take over," no matter what might be on the air, even commercials. This is not what you would call acceptable, if those commercials paid your salary, and unless the station is low-budget or had ijits at the controls (hey, they work cheap!), it's better to run the EAS box in manual; then when tests or alerts come in, only the d00d in the control room hears them and, at the end of that commercial or hot hit tune, he or she pushes the magic "manual forward" button to play it on the air. (So why is the magical interrupt box even there? Sometimes it isn't, but however things are wired up, part of the EAS message is a databurst that carries the specific event code and location, and it works best if it gets sent at the proper volume; relying on that d00d or d00dete to set the volume level...not always the best idea).

So there's your "Federal control" at the last step before end-user level. Let's back up and see how Uncle Sam pushes his diabolical red button!

Turns out there is some Sooper Sekrit Stuff here but after you've read about it, you may see why. The FCC decided -- based on EMP studies and a lot of experience -- that the entire country can be reached via a few dozen powerful AM stations. They picked 'em and gave them some kind of multiple-redundant link back to Washington; one path is via satellite but it's not the only connection and the details are not public. All it carries is the same EAS info any other link in in system carries: voice-grade audio, with an alert tone and databurst, and it talks to the same kind of interrupt box, which, yes, is in automatic mode. Yes, there's your Big Red Button and that is all it does -- if it even does that; that part of the system has never been tested on the air. The feds are indeed cagy about their links to these AM stations; they use their own security protocols, it's not on the Internet -- and I don't blame 'em. If that got hacked, it would be a huge mess -- or at least awkward; the one mistaken activation known was at a single station, quickly caught, and wasn't a problem.

...And why wasn't it a problem? Because the next stage is a whole bunch of other stations, with their own guys at the controls, who looked at the incoming message, compared it to reality (gee, nothing on the newswires, nothing on the network feed, nothing on the Internet) and stifled it. You still don't want it happening every time some code kiddie in Duluth gets bored, which is why our Uncle Sam ain't talkin' about the details.

Downstream of the few dozen AM stations, it's all open-source. There are no hidden links, no hidden codes, nothing; it happens over the air where anyone can hear it. If the government -- Federal, State or local -- abused the EAS system, they'd get massive non-compliance; they are counting on actual voluntary compliance, thousands of individuals of all stripes, all across the country, each one of whom decides if they will push that button or not.

The fed.gov ain't "takin' over" anything -- because they can't.

Personally, I'd advise you to listen to your $PERSONAL MUSIC PLAYER unless the weather looks bad. Or the to Internet.

16 comments:

Nathan said...

"It's not on the Internet."

Which is a Good Thing™. Every time I read about things that can be managed through the Internet...like, say, power generating plants...I shudder.

wv: militiat. "Where's the militiat?"

Jake (formerly Riposte3) said...

"Personally, I'd advise you to listen to your $PERSONAL MUSIC PLAYER unless the weather looks bad. Or the to Internet."

I would add "Get a weather alert radio" (something like this), so that if you're not actually listening to the radio or watching tv, you still get any alerts.

This got added to my list after I missed a couple of tornado warnings in my area. Cell phone alerts can end up delayed, don't rely on them!

Anonymous said...

This right here is why I read your blog. Now I'm able to refuel my depleted know-it-all tanks, and explain this stuff to people as if I knew what the hell I was talking about.

Thanks!

Mike James

Jake (formerly Riposte3) said...

In spite of what I said above, it is worth noting that (according to the Virginia DEM email notice I got the other day) the test will not be carried on NOAA Weather Radios.

I'm not sure why they chose to exclude those, since I would consider them to be a key part of the overall system, but be aware it won't work to test your new weather alert radio.

Matt G said...

Good stuff.
Why aren't there more out there like you?

Old Grouch said...

"...the one mistaken activation [of the current system] known was at a single station, quickly caught, and wasn't a problem."

The one before that was a bit more interesting.

og said...

When I was on the board at wXXX in northwes Indiana in the 80's, it was still EBS. The EBS unit was relatively new, there were still pieces of CONELRAD equipment in the storage area.

When the alarm went you had X amount of time to stop what was on-air, (song, commercial, lions club president yapping away) and get the EBS out.

We were one of the little stations that didn't have the 'regular" equipment, so the on air talent was used to broadcast. One I did ended up on a cart, and they used it for many years after that. I remember driving around hearing my own voice saying "had this been an actual emergency, you would have been instructed where to tune in your area...."

I also taped one that said "This has been a test of the Random Urinalysis System. Had this been an actual emergency, you would have been instructed as to where to deposit your urine". This made it on air accidentally, once. The station owner came into the control room, asked for the cart, and crushed it underfoot. Then he looked at me, laughed, and left the room.

Nathan said...

Jake -- NOAA runs a weekly test, on Wednesdays between 10AM and noon, for that purpose. See http://www.nws.noaa.gov/nwr/nwrtest.htm .

Comrade Misfit said...

Anyone remember Conelrad? When I was a child, you could still find radios that had the Conelrad triangles at 640 and 1240 on the AM dial.

Roberta X said...

Jake, in a funny way, NOAA radio is outside the system. The only EAS messages the carry are weather-related and their messages are rarely relayed from one broadcast station to another; instead, they reach each station directly through a tuner for the local NOAA station that feeds the EAS decoder. There are multiple audio inputs to the decoder -- normally, NOAA plus the two broadcast station assignments, sometimes an Internet radio tuner and/or an audio output from a computer that monitors a CAPS server. (CAPS is the Common Altering Protocol System, which the Feds still haven't got up and running but it's sort of EAS-over-Internet).

Misfit: Aww, the Russkis will NEVER be able to home in our radio stations with Conelrad running! We'll totally confuse 'em! Or ourselves! ;)

Standard Mischief said...

>that the entire country can be reached via a few dozen powerful AM stations.

See, now I thought the trend was away from the "clear channel" type stations. I use to have WTOP's 1500 khz towers in my backyard, and I heard them via shortwave on the second, third, fifth, and seventh harmonic.

Oh and despite what the real truth is on the "voluntary cooperation" part, those broadcasting licenses are not "shall issue".

Roberta X said...

Well, there's trends and trends; the FCC is not especially monolithic and what works for 'em in terms of licensing may not be how they see i when devising an alert system.

The current FCC Big Cheese has a major hate on for TV stations and lusts after their spectrum; and he's no big fan of AM radio, either. (He's a Free Broadband For The People kind of guy.) But the guys under him (and under them) and their midlevel counterparts at FEMA just have to get the pig to dance; they're using what they have, and what they have is the system thought up after the EBS system was found to be not so great. The "few dozen AM stations" were one of the parts of EBS that did kind of work, so that's 1960s planning.

Jake (formerly Riposte3) said...

Thanks for the explanation!

Personally, I just find it odd that there's this widespread system that is specifically designed to broadcast alerts and to be monitored by anyone who is interested in hearing alerts, but the national EAS isn't actually set up to take advantage of it.

But then I realize that doing so would make sense, and that the .gov is involved, so reason is out to lunch.

Roberta X said...

NOAA's system is set up to handle weather alerts and they do it well. Other kinds of things, they are not set up, don't want to do, and figure State cops can handle lost/abducted kids and FEMA and State Emergency Managers can handle non-weather disasters. I don't blame them for sticking with their core competency.

Broadcast stations run higher power and offer wider coverage -- and there are 100X more receivers for AM and FM, too.

jed said...

I'm with Jake. Has been on my mind to acquire a hand-crank radio. I was just now surprised when Amazon, after I had checked 'Grundig' for brand, also offered up Eton radios. Oh, so I learned that Eton has a partnership with Grundig. Anyone know whether Eton makes good stuff, or are they just riding on the reputation of Grundig? (Or am I mistaken about the quality of Grundig? ISTR them as a good product.)

rickn8or said...

Thanks for the clarification. Much better description of what's going on than We the Peepul were getting from the gooberment or the media.