Thursday, September 28, 2017

"Had This Been An Actual Emergency..."

     There was another national-level test of the EAS -- the modern synthetic replacement for the old-fashioned Emergency Broadcast System -- yesterday and it appears this will be a yearly thing.

     For decades, the FCC had been assuring various Federal civil-emergency agencies (of late, FEMA)  that EBS and then EAS was absolutely spiffing, all worked out, set up and ready to go, yessirree Bob!  --Then several years ago when worried FEMA staffers, I'm told mostly the nuts-and-bolts type who have to make things work rather than bureaucrats, insisted on trying it, it failed pretty miserably.  A low-bidder system used to send spoken messages from the Feds to the very first level of big radio stations conked out and a big chunk of the nation heard a mumbling garble instead of "...This is only a test...."

     Since then, the system has been cleaned up, augmented by an all-new Internet-based emergency message collection/distribution system, and generally revamped under the (respectively) watchful and worried eyes of FEMA and the FCC.  Last year's test wasn't too bad and this year?

     This year, it mostly worked.  The magic black boxes at "broadcast stations in your area" grab the first tagged message they get from whatever source and file any later duplicates.  Stations that received the Internet-delivered version had pretty good audio quality; stations that got the station-to-station-to-station relay first had, in large part, adequate fidelity.*  A few, out at the end of long chains of pass-it-on, didn't fare quite so well.  Along with the audible message, TV stations and cable/satellite systems send a text "crawl" over the picture with content delivered over the same system and those came through just fine.

     So, for whatever its worth, had it been an Actual Emergency, you would have got the message -- and there's a whole other part of the system that pushes alerts to mobile phones that has yet to get a national-level test but is already in use for localized bad weather and "Amber Alerts" for children in imminent danger.  Five years ago, neither of those would have been true -- but thanks to a handful of people at FEMA who wanted to make sure, it's working.
* In order to get the most reach from the fewest Primary Entry Points, national EAS messages begin on a few dozen powerful AM stations, who receive it from an Undisclosed Location (usually Mt. Weather but I'm sure that's only one of several possibilities) near Washington, D.C. via, ahem, "secure means."  In Indianapolis, the state primaries listen to signals from Cincinnati and some muddiness and static is normal: it's quite a distance and their receiving locations are all right by busy highways.  The station-to-station part of EAS is, however, fast, and that path beat the Internet-delivered one to Indy by about a minute.  So that's what people here heard.


Ygolonac said...

Here in Spokane WA, they've been doing an automated mass-call to landline phones for missing persons - one child and one or two elderly/vulnerable adults, IIRC. And a followup alert later after they were found, of course. (There may have been more that happened when I was out, if it didn't trigger voicemail.)

Roberta X said...

Those are sometimes known as "Reverse 911" systems and modern telephone switching makes them relatively straightforward to implement. Great if used wisely; not so great if over-used.

Jeffrey Smith said...

Our local Reverse 911 works well and not too often, but the Amber Alert system could be better. Much better. I don't need a shrill bell audible a football field away which wants to alert me to a child abduction in Jacksonville or Panama Beach (a mere six and nine hours away, respectively, in normal drive time). I need it even less when the alert is repeated the next morning about fifteen minutes before my alarm clock goes off. The system apparently thinks local=statewide. This is fine in Rhode Island and Delaware, not fine in Florida.

Douglas2 said...

I'm sure you heard about the incident out west, where some glitch prevented the "end of message" flag from going out from KWVE -- hence immediately after "this is a test" there was about a minute and a half of apocalyptic message about the world being about to end because of mankind's depravity (i.e.: normal LWVE programming) sent out on the rest of the downstream participants of the EAS test.

Roberta X said...

Jeffrey Smith, if it's hitting your cell phone, it's probably WEA and not reverse 911. Reverse 911 (generally) goes to landlines and is relatively targetable to specific geographic areas: the system *knows* where your wired phone it. Conversely, your cell phone could be anywhere; WEA is supposed to be targetable down to individual cells but a lot depends on the originator, which may be hitting the entire state on the principle of "more is better." --This is why such systems must be used sparingly. Amber Alerts are supposed to be issued only when the life and safety of the children is thought to be at imminent risk.

RandyGC said...


There is a version of reverse 911 working through IPAWS (I don't know if it uses the WEA functionality at some level). It lights up cell towers in a given geographic area depending on where you need the alert to go (along with landlines in the same area). Any cell phones currently on those towers will get the message. Our local dispatch center is getting it set up to compliment the standard geography based Reverse 911 type system it has.