Things didn’t go exactly as planned with FEMA’s emergency alert test earlier this month, unless your ideal emergency alert involves Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” blasting from your TV as danger approaches. But despite its shortcomings--including some of the public not getting any alerts at all--FEMA, the FCC, and NOAA agree the test was a success. In fact, they say it went better than expected.
Damon Penn, assistant administrator for National Continuity Programs, explained the successes, shortcomings, and unexpected results of the first nationwide Emergency Alert System (EAS) test in response to questions from subcommittee chairman Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) at a Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications hearing on Thursday.
The national Emergency Alert System is an alert and warning system that can be activated by the President, if needed, to provide information to the public during emergencies. NOAA can also use the system for more localized alerts. “We have equipment that is as old as 50 years that we’ve never turned on before. So what else do you have that’s 50 years old that you’ve never turned on and ensured that it worked properly?” Penn said of the test.
On November 9th, FEMA attempted to broadcast a three minute set of beeps and tones with a message scrolling the screen, followed by a voice repeating, “this is a test,” across all regularly scheduled television, radio, cable, and satellite programs with mixed results.
The Massachusetts State Police reported that the test went smoothly, calling it “good practice in case of real national emergency alert.” But based on reports from Twitter, many people had their channels change inexplicably, some had their TV screens act erratically, and for a number of watchers the audio was heard, but instead of announcing "This is a test," it played Lady Gaga.
Even so, Penn says that for the most part the test did what it was supposed to do. The message system was designed to transmit messages from the White House to broadcasters and from broadcasters to the public. And that is the part, according to Penn, that went better than expected.
“In some states we had over 90 percent coverage through the broadcasters and out through their stations out to the public,” Penn said. All 63 entry point stations received the alert, and 60 were able to rebroadcast.
“We also found it was a success that the public was not alarmed that we were doing a nationwide test.” Leading up to the test, FEMA launched an informational campaign including an online FAQ and online videos in addition to providing information for the media to distribute to the public.
One of the main problems FEMA found with the system was that when audio was successfully rebroadcasted, it was often inaudible.