This is a test of the Emergency Alert System – a very special test.
For the first time, the federal government will actually break into programming nationwide to test its emergency communications backbone. At approximately 2:00 pm EST on Wednesday, radio and TV stations will sound a loud tone and an announcement about testing the nationwide emergency alert system.
While most Americans have endured regular tests of this system by broadcasters on a state and local level, the federal government has never initiated a nationwide emergency alert.
The national EAS circuit, operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, allows the president to communicate with the public in an instant. On the president’s signal, FEMA can seize control of the airwaves temporarily and override the signal with the president’s message.
A version of the system has been in place since at least 1963, when the government created an emergency broadcast system to provide warning about "grave emergencies" such as hurricanes or a nuclear attack.
Problem is: “This has never been tested,” said Craig Fugate, FEMA’s administrator.
Modern technology makes notifying the public about emergencies easier in some ways, with FEMA and most municipalities providing Twitter feeds and e-mail alerts. But it's also more complicated because fewer Americans rely solely on broadcasters for information and entertainment.
Fugate said that several scenarios short of nuclear war could persuade a president to activate the EAS circuit. They include a space-weather event; if a solar flare were detected that could significantly disrupt wireless communications across the country, the president might want to give people notice. Fugate said that Americans often underestimate how fragile the communication system is. “It’s something we were reminded of in the earthquake,” he said. “And if you’ve ever been to a football game and tried to make a call after a big play in the fourth quarter, you know it.”
Both the FCC and FEMA are stressing that the EAS test is only a test. Indeed, a FEMA website designed for the public reminds them, “don’t stress.”
Already, anti-big-government groups are suspicious of the government’s ability to pre-empt broadcasters. A planned digital EAS could allow the president to send a text message to virtually every telephone in the country, according to a government document obtained by National Journal.
But since 9/11, when the president had trouble communicating with his advisers in the White House, and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when a regional alerting system might have been helpful, emergency-management officials at the federal and local levels have worked to rebuild backup communication infrastructure that had atrophied since the end of the Cold War.
President Obama will not participate, though the signal will originate at the White House, Fugate said.