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Day-After Frustrations Strong Following EAS IPAWS Test

For stations that did not receive the alert as expected, vexations run high

Reactions continue to come in from stations that participated in Wednesday’s EAS IPAWS test, as well as those that didn’t get a chance.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency conducted a test that was originally to cover 22 states, two territories and the District of Columbia.

Stations in a half-dozen states expected tests that never came because of late cancellations due to real weather concerns. Among stations that did receive it, many who commented to Radio World said it came off smoothly. We also heard from some stations that the test arrived later than expected. Some engineers with multiple stations noted that the alert didn’t arrive in the sequence they expected. In some cases, audio was wonky, while others experienced very good audio.

At WJZR(FM) in Rochester, N.Y., “The test went fine for this station, using the Sage ENDEC [EAS system],” wrote Lee Rust. “Audio quality was quite good.”

But for those who did not receive the test and were expecting it to roll in at 2:20 pm ET on Wednesday, frustrations ran high. “I found out cancellation info from a Radio World email, not from FEMA or the FAB [the Florida Association of Broadcasters],” wrote Enrique Lopez, chief engineer for Univision Radio Miami. “I think [they] need to improve communication with stations.”

The information chain came under criticism. The states of Florida, North Carolina and Virginia were dropped from the test at the request of their respective state emergency management agencies, while Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi were dropped upon the recommendation of the National Weather Service due to recovery activities in those states following severe weather.

The Alabama Broadcasters Association is one group frustrated that its emergency communications committee was not consulted nor informed by the National Weather Service that the test was to be cancelled. “Engineers and [members of the] State Emergency Communications Committee (SECC) throughout the state had put in many hours configuring the EAS units to receive and relay the NPT [National Periodic Test code],” said Larry Wilkins, engineer for the Alabama Broadcasters Association. “On the day of the test, everyone sat patiently waiting for 1:20 pm [Central Time] to trigger the NPT. But there was nothing but silence.

“As my phone began to ring and email inbox filled up, I tried to determine what had happened,” he said. ”Then we discovered that our state was removed from the test and I was left sitting with egg on my face. A simple email or phone call would have saved the day. … While none of the affected [Gulf Coast] states would have objected [because the cancellation was] weather related,” Wilkins said, “it was approved without notifying the state’s SECC or broadcasters.”

He added, “It has always appeared to me that the State Emergency Communications Committee ranks at the low end of chain of authority,” though the SECC is in the field working directly with broadcasters and cable systems to ensure compliance with FCC and other governmental rules.

Radio World has requested comment from FEMA officials and will report those when received.

While cancellations caused consternation, others said caution was appropriate.

“Given the devastating tornado that struck here in Pensacola, it was not a bad idea to drop Florida from test,” said Dave Hoxeng, owner of WNRP(AM) in Pensacola, Fla.

In addition to radio stations, the EAS test was sent to cable and television stations as well. For those who received the test, similar levels of success were reported. “The test worked as expected,” said Ken Evans, master control supervisor WMDT in Salisbury, Md., who also serves as member of the Maryland Emergency Communications Committee. “It went off flawlessly.”

The quality of the alerts was also up for debate.“I’d describe the audio quality as quite decent, not stellar,” said Joseph Haefeli, engineer with WRFI in Ithaca, N.Y. “As someone else observed, I wish our local tests sounded that good.”

For others, not so good. “I hope they improve audio quality in the future. Many times you can’t understand what [the alerts are saying],” wrote Lopez, chief engineer for Univision Radio Miami.

What should be done in future? Simply put, said Dave Baughn with Red Mountain Broadcasting in Birmingham, Ala., “They can let us know when they cancel a test so we are not thinking we have something wrong and are going to be fined thousands of dollars.”

Some stations did learn from the process, which has been one of FEMA’s stated goals in conducting this series of EAS tests.

“As for what we learned, we are setting up procedures to make sure that we have the latest firmware updates for our EAS equipment, and do routine training for our techs and hosts that are not as familiar with EAS protocol,” said Chris Whitfield, technical operations manager for FM station WAMU in Washington, D.C.

His suggestion: FEMA should conduct these types of tests on an annual basis to ensure that the bugs are worked out of the system.

At the end of the day, communication remains key. “Our engineering people were waiting for a test that never came, so we thought something was wrong at our end,” Hoxeng in Florida said.