This Is Just A Test

Here’s one you may not have heard about: On Nov. 9, at 2 p.m. (ET), anyone, anywhere in the U.S., who’s sitting around watching TV will witness a test, just a test, of the national Emergency Alert System.

It’ll be just like the local EAS tests conducted each month, but nationwide. Everybody, all at once, same message.

The reasoning behind it is grim, but logical: What if the president needs to get an emergency message out to as many people as possible, with or without a live Internet? Answer: Send it to the TV.

That’s the reasoning, devised by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Communications Commission and the National Weather Service.

The test is a first, over a system that’s never been activated to be hierarchical. Only local. And, as it turns out, the technology required for the effort isn’t exactly a no-brainer.

First of all, it’s not like someone is sitting at a console, over at the headquarters for FEMA, Homeland Security or the FCC, saying, “OK, Freddy, type this in.” There’s no hitting “send” and distributing a message, live, to every TV set in the land.

No, the message itself, and for the purposes of the test, is to be hard-coded into the existing gear that handles local and state emergencies. In a cable sense, that means gear in headends, listening for the EAS trigger, then force-tuning all set-tops to a channel.

The thing is, the verbiage of the visual message doesn’t exactly say it’s a test. The audio does, yes. The text? Not so much. And it’s too close to the test to change it now.

What happens on Nov. 9? Here’s how the FCC describes it:

“During the test, the public will hear a message indicating, ‘This is a test.’ The audio message will be the same for everyone, however due to the limitations of the EAS, the video test message may not be the same and may not indicate, ‘This is a test.’ This is due to the use of a ‘live’ national code - the same code that would be used in an actual emergency. Also, the background image that appears on video screens may indicate ‘this is a test,’ but in some cases there may be no image at all.”

So, what if the sound is off or the ears aren’t working right? Seems likely that someone, somewhere, will see the alert’s text - “This is a national emergency,” or some such - but not hear that it’s just a test. People flipping out, as a consequence, seems plausible, if not likely.

Meanwhile, work continues within an outfit called EAS-CAP (, where the “CAP” stands for “Common Alerting Protocol.” Its tagline is “promoting standards for the next generation of EAS.” The FCC in September extended manufacturer compliance with EAS-CAP specs from Sept. 30 until June of 2012.

So, if there’s a next generation of EAS coming by next summer, maybe hold off on the test until then, instead of freaking people out? Just a thought.

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