Click here  to listen to the broadcast of You Tell Me on KTBB AM & FM, Friday, Nov. 4, 2011.
Earlier this week, every broadcaster, cable system operator and satellite TV provider in the country took part in the first-ever national test of the Emergency Alert System. Known as EAS, the system was put in place in 1997 to take the place of the Emergency Broadcast System, which took the place of the old Conelrad system of the 1950s.
The theory behind EAS is that in the event of a national emergency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, can throw a switch and the President of the United States can speak to every citizen simultaneously.
Every week, at some random time, this station, like very nearly every radio and television station in the country, broadcasts a test of the Emergency Alert System. The phrase, “this is only a test,” derives from those weekly tests.
The Emergency Alert System is activated on a local or regional basis fairly frequently. The most common reason for activation is severe weather. But EAS is also used to quickly alert the public to missing persons via “Amber Alerts,” named after Amber Hagerman, a nine year-old child who was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas in 1996.
When activated close to home, the Emergency Alert System works reasonably well.
But the principal reason for its existence, the reason it was created to replace the old Emergency Broadcast System, is national in scope. EAS exists in its present form so that the president, or some representative of national command authority, can get an emergency message out to the American people quickly.
So nearly fifteen years and countless government man-hours spent on threatening broadcasters with fines and penalties for deficient EAS compliance later, how did the first-ever national test go this week?
To the surprise of few, not so well.
Some stations didn’t receive the activation. On many stations at which the activation worked, the test message was garbled or inaudible. DirecTV customers had what they were watching interrupted by Lady Gaga. Stations in two entire states didn’t receive the test at all.
There will be, in the wake of the national EAS test, much analysis and many high-level hearings. EAS procedures will be reviewed and countless reports will be written. Every EAS participant in the country has already been required, under pain of fine or other penalty, to file three separate reports with the FCC on this week’s test. No one in the business believes that we’re done filing reports.
In the end, there will be some grand pronouncement regarding major changes to EAS and possibly a call to scrap it entirely in favor of a new, even more grandly designed system that will nonetheless be technologically ancient by the time it is fully implemented.
If you’re a fan of big government, this week’s botched EAS test should give you pause. Because big government, given the fairly straightforward task of distributing a 30-second audio message, couldn’t get it done,
If you need a clear object lesson on the pitfalls of trusting in grand, government-created schemes handed down from Olympian heights, the national EAS test should serve nicely.
I’m guessing that this week’s EAS test involved fewer than 15,000 separate physical locations in the entire country. According to the design of the system, which cost hundreds of millions to finalize and implement, it should have gone smoothly.
But it didn’t. And many of us in the broadcasting industry aren’t surprised.
That should concern you with respect to other grand government schemes, say, Obamacare for example, which will be disseminated through millions of locations involving tens of millions of transactions every month.
The federal government, in which so many place so much faith, couldn’t disseminate a simple 30 second message over a network that has been in place for 15 years.
Why would anyone trust such a sclerotic behemoth with anything as important as one’s health and one’s retirement?