Thursday, November 10, 2011

National EAS Test: OOOPS!

So, FEMA and the FCC threw a party EAS Test and the clown never showed up -- or maybe the clowns were running it.

FEMA, having, perhaps, bumped up against hard reality more often than any Federal agency except the National Weather Service, warned going in, it's a test. They were looking for unsuspected weaknesses.

Found 'em. Here in de Hoosier Hardtland, we got the tricky part just fine: the blind-sent data bursts chortled along and the text it's supposed to make pop up on local station TV screens did just that. But the easy part, the 1920s-technology where a fellow in a far distant city speaks and it goes to broadcast stations and we all hear it? Failed. Thirty seconds of between-stations static is what we got -- and early word in the biz is, that's exactly what Uncle Sam sent to the big AM station that serves our area.

In other regions, the voice message was garbled, "echoey," or had a lot of noise. Early word is the entire state of Oregon received.... nothing at all! In some cases, stations that thought they were ready learned otherwise; but that was far less common than high-level failures at the originationg points serving entire regions,

You will, however be relieved to learn that in New York City, where "remain home, remain calm" is about the only possible emergency information that won't result in panic and gridlock, the system appears to have worked fine.*

Before we go off in a chorus of "Ha-HA!" like the kid in The Simpsons, I have to point out that nearly all the state-level systems (which are tested monthly) worked A-OK. If FEMA sent out noise or garble, they faithfully relayed it to a puzzled public, in exactly the same way they relay the clear and understandable monthly test message and weather alerts. Sure, you're online with Twitter, Facebook, blogs or news or listening to an iThing, but if you do have a TV or radio on and there's a typical state or local emergency -- tornadoes or locusts, tidal waves or wildfires -- the message will get to you.

However, if the Postal Service goes belly-up or Washington, D.C. goes down like Atlantis, I would not expect the EAS to carry the warning. At least not until they figure out what went wrong and go about the painful process of fixing it.

You might take some comfort that on 11 September 2001, when a national-level emergency did take place, the news was disseminated rapidly. Not by the government but by the various companies that run for-profit networks all day, every day: ABC/CBS/NBC/Fox/CNN etc. all jumped on the story as it happened -- and even pushed their scheduled commercials aside to do it. There wasn't any question of the message making it to you; it had been reaching you 24/7/365 to hawk soap flakes and cornflakes already and when the stakes suddenly got much higher, it was already in place, working.

Funny, that. (Oh, Adam Smiiiiiiiiiith....?)
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* I'd like to mention that in the two most recent actual emergencies to afflict New York City, the World Trade Center attack and the 2003 Northeast blackout, NYC residents did extremely well, stepping up to the situation and doing what needed done, a far cry from the kind of chaos predicted in fiction.

16 comments:

Carteach0 said...

So.... what I am gathering from the situation.....

Yesterday we had a self inflicted competence test of various national emergency agencies, whereupon we were shown their true and unblemished level of ability as they crashed and burned in epic fashion.

That about cover it?

Roberta X said...

Yep.

Carteach0 said...

Thought so.

Anonymous said...

The thing is, nobody's owned up to what it is they really want from the EBS (sorry, EAS--oh, hell, I wish they still called it Conelrad)

I can tell you what I want--

I want a sweaty, frightened looking dude in a dress shirt with the tie loosened, and the sleeves pushed up to his elbows. I want him to read the alert message with a stuttering voice, with several awkward pauses while he tries to keep it together, while his eyes try to track and to focus, and almost succeed.

A teletype machine going chig-chig-chig-chig-ching! in the background, and the image on my television to waver and go in and out of focus.

In black and white, and a faint overlay on the soundtrack of an air raid siren, and hysterical voices inside the studio, and people running through the frame at the end.

That's not much to ask for our tax dollars, is it?

Mike James

Tam said...

"...or Washington, D.C. goes down like Atlantis..."

From your lips to God's ears, Bobbi. From your lips to God's ears...

Joanna said...

Mike: Don't forget how the broadcast ends: the presenter is cut off mid-sentence and something knocks over the camera, giving us a quick shot of running feet and at least one prone figure before the feed cuts to static. The last of the audio is panicked shouts and a woman screaming "My baby!"

(Hey, if we're going to go all-out ... )

Tam said...

Joanna,

I'd chip in an extra couple bucks a year for that. :D


(WV: "rephined". Mike and Joanna's idea is far more rephined than the current system.)

Dave H said...

I'd chip in an extra couple bucks a year for that.

Me too. I'd also do 2 to 5 in federal prison for breaking in during the Super Bowl and activating it.

John A said...

Oh, and do we get back the sirens that alerted us to find a radio/TV/computer? To wake us if we are sleeping?

Ken said...

Until Washington, DC goes down like the Barad-Dur....

I'm with Mike James @ 8:20 am. I thought CONELRAD was a cool name too (I read Alas, Babylon! in high school*, and it stayed with me).

So if you ever wonder whether a course like Science Fiction Lit can have value in high school, it can if you have a good teacher and you read 1984, Brave New World, and Alas, Babylon!. If we'd have read The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, it would've been perfect, but hey, I said it was high school. In the 1970s.

Roberta X remotely said...

We still have the sirens, though maintenance is an ongoing issue abd a popular topic for TV news during ratings sweeps. That switch gets flipped, usually, by the County Emergency Manager, or whoever fills that role -- very often, the biggest PD/Sheriff dispatch office in the county gets stuck with it. Supposedly -- and quite often in reality -- they are monitoring local weather radio and the local EAS station(s) and likely have a connection to NWS/NOAA via Internet as well.

In Marion County, they are tested weekly. People are asked to call the county if their neighborhood siren doesn't sigh.

But they weren't a part of yesterday's test.

Drang said...

As noted, this is the first time the nation-wide system was tested. The two concerns I have are 1) why was it the first time it was tested, and 2) will the problems be corrected?
As an aside to 1), why would anyone expect things to go off perfectly in a system that had never been tested?

Actually, though, a better question may be, Do we really need a nation-wide system? And who pays for it, and how, and who maintains it, and whee does the moiney for that come from?

WV: sushwx. Yes, up in the mountains we are getting weather suitable for sushing, or however you spell it. My playing in the snow days are over.

bob r said...

"However, if the Postal Service goes belly-up or Washington, D.C. goes down like Atlantis, I would not expect the EAS to carry the warning."

First, you shouldn't get people's hopes up like that. Second, a warning isn't necessary -- just mark the date on the calendar for annual celebration.

Standard Mischief said...

>That's not much to ask for our tax dollars, is it?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yu4r79l8P8I

Bonus: the Partridge Family leads in the emergency alert mistake from decades ago. No video, but announcer Bob Sievers said later that it was his “longest five minutes in radio.”

Roberta X said...

Distribution to the PEP-1 stations is paid by...us. The Feds fund the whole thing. But from there on, it is "funded" by the individual stations, who must buy, install and maintain their own EAS equipment. (I've seen the codecs sell on eBay for under $1K). The advertisers end up paying fractionally more, as do you when you buy their products...but the stuff is pretty cheap compared to most items found in such installations, and it doesn't take much looking after. (Gets even less, if this test is any evidence).

Old Grouch said...

Looks like we get to blame WCCO for at least part of the chaos.

OTOH, whoever it was at FEMA who thought that using a conference bridge to distribute program audio was a good idea needs to have his geek card taken away and burned and "FAIL" tattooed onto his forehead!

TW: "hempo"
What they must have been smoking when they wrote that specification.