This Is Just a Test

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

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