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Glitches in first nationwide EAS test not unexpected

Broadcast tower

The first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System for cable, satellite and broadcast service providers, and federal emergency and communications agencies, didn’t go completely smoothly on Nov. 9, but participants didn’t really expect them to.

“You can’t have a test of that scale and without problems,” Dennis Wharton, vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters told Government Security News. Over 15,000 radio and television broadcast stations were involved in the test, as well as cable and satellite service providers, he said. Each had to prepare for and execute the trial, leaving a wide gap for problems to creep in.

On Nov. 9 at 2 p.m. eastern time, the test was to interrupt all radio, television, cable and satellite transmission with a test screen or notification that told viewers and listeners that it was a test of the EAS. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Communications Commission had worked for months to coordinate and execute the test.

During the test, a number of glitches showed up ranging from blank television screens, dead radio air and inexplicable broadcasts. News reports an online blogs said some DirectTV customers said they heard Lady Gaga's “Paparazzi” play during the test interval. Some Comcast subscribers saw their cable boxes turn to QVC before the alert and Time Warner Cable customers in New York said they didn’t see any alert at all.

“We wish everything could have run perfectly,” said Wharton, “but it’s not realistic that there wouldn’t be problems.” The test relied on a complex daisy chain of notifications for local broadcasters, specific tones sent from FEMA to those stations and how providers’ equipment was prepared to receive the messages. It also depended on communications between government agencies and service providers.

Miscommunication on simple logistics may also have played a role. Wharton said some radio and television stations may have run a three minute trial on Nov. 9, even though FCC and FEMA said on Nov. 4 that the trial’s duration would be 30 seconds and not three minutes. He also said in some instances audio didn’t work. “There was no single theme of the hiccups,” he said.

He said broadcasters have to submit reports on the test to the FCC. That agency wants to complete a diagnostic assessment by the end of the year.


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