24 October 2011

What you need to know about the nationwide Emergency Alert System (EAS) test

I've noticed a fair amount of discussion and concern online about the upcoming test of the national Emergency Alert System (EAS). Here's the lowdown on what you can expect. [Editor's note: this post has been updated on November 5 with more information from FEMA and the FCC.]

The first nationwide test of the EAS is scheduled to take place at 2:00 PM (Eastern Standard Time) on November 9, 2011. The test is supposed to assess the reliability and effectiveness of the system in alerting the public. Before we look at what the test will involve, let's look at what EAS is, first.

Image courtesy of the FEMA website (click to enlarge)

EAS is actually part of the larger Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), which is illustrated in the graphic above. You can also find a video overview of IPAWS on the FEMA website.

EAS was put into place on January 1, 1997, when it superseded the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS).

The EAS is typically used by state and local emergency managers to alert the public about emergencies and weather events. Although local and state components of the EAS are tested on a weekly and monthly basis (like the EBS was before it), there has never been a completely nationwide test of the system.

So, what will happen? Well, EAS alerts are simply transmitted over all television and radio broadcast, satellite television and satellite radio, cable television and wireline video services, just nationwide this time. This is shown in the upper-right hand corner of the above illustration, where the EAS is shown as feeding to "AM FM Satellite Radio; Digital, Analog, Cable, and Satellite TV."

The FCC anticipates that the test will last just 30 seconds (previously, it was supposed to last 3 minutes). During the test, we will  supposedly hear a message indicating “this is a test.” Apparently, everyone will hear the same audio message, however, the video test message may not be the same. In fact, it may not indicate that “this is a test.” In addition, it's my understanding that close-captioning will not indicate that the EAS test is underway. You'll want to remember these things when the test starts, so that you don't mistaking think there's an actual emergency.

There's been some question as to whether the test will involve mobile communications devices. Reportedly, it will not. According to the FCC's FAQ on the EAS test, it "will involve only those communications service providers – broadcast radio and television, cable television, satellite radio and television and wireline video services – that participate in the EAS." (Interestingly, FEMA points out in their related FAQ that NOAA will not carry the EAS test.)

In a nutshell, the EAS should just be a test message interrupting all radio and television broadcasting at 2 PM on November 9. Presumably, it will not affect mobile devices or the Internet.


  1. Personally, I agree that this is a "test" but I also think that it could be used for something more in a time of an "uprising". It is a way to shut the people down in my opinion.

  2. Yes, I agree that it could be a double-edged sword, just like any power.

    The real question is whether the ability to keep the American public informed is worth the risk of the system's abuse.