WASHINGTON As FEMA upgrades EAS installations at some radio stations and state emergency operations centers, it plans a big change in its testing procedure.
The change can’t come too soon for station engineers, who say what happened in Illinois recently points up weaknesses of the Emergency Alert System.
In the future, FEMA said it will coordinate with state and local emergency management offices — and broadcasters — any background or closed system testing of its new satellite distribution system using a live event code for the Emergency Alert System.
An audible message indicating the purpose of the test will be relayed as well.
These changes were put in place because of a mistake in June. The encoders/decoders at many stations, most of them in Illinois, received and automatically relayed to other stations for broadcast a national alert not meant for the public. What was supposed to be a closed-circuit test of a 10-minute presidential alert message from FEMA was broadcast to hundreds of stations. Some engineering sources believe the total number affected was about 500.
The error occurred as FEMA is upgrading EAS equipment by installing a satellite-based distribution network in the 50 states to provide redundancy for broadcast radio and TV stations to relay emergency messages. The upgrade is part of system improvements at the behest of the White House, reported here earlier.
Right hand doesn’t talk to left
FEMA is using a contractor to install the EAS satellite distribution receivers.
The agency was testing whether a presidential alert message could be transmitted to specific receivers in different parts of the country. Two stations, one in Cleveland and another in Richmond, Va., were used to measure any difference in data quality or time delays over the satellite distribution network.
Those tests were successful, FEMA spokesman James McIntyre told Radio World.
But that test went far beyond those markets.
In Illinois, the contractor, which FEMA declined to identify, installed the new EAS satellite distribution receiver, connected the unit to the state EAS distribution system and left it on in late June at the Springfield operations center of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
FEMA said the contractor was told to turn off the receivers after local testing, but did not. The Illinois state EAS distribution system was left in “automatic” mode, according to the federal agency.
The improperly installed equipment “basically created an open loop. That system was not supposed to be online,” said McIntyre.
FEMA personnel performing the test on June 26 did not know any of this when they conducted the Emergency Activation Notification tests.
EAN is an event code used by EAS to signify a federal activation of the system; indeed, many stations that received the errant test said the header message said the message came from the District of Columbia. An EAN is reserved solely for the president.
FEMA said it notified Illinois about a week before it tested the national alert system at two stations in Richmond and Cleveland. IEMA Director Andrew Velasquez said in a statement that IEMA had no advance warning of the test.
Engineers told RW their programming was taken over for 10 minutes, starting at 7:30 a.m. to about 8 a.m., depending on when each Illinois station in the chain got the message.
All listeners in the Chicago area, for example, heard the alert tones and then regular programming of P1 station WGN with no explanation, according to engineering sources. In other parts of the state, listeners heard dead air after the alert tones.
A monthly test would have lasted for two minutes, as opposed to the 10-minute national alert. Some engineers were able to cut off the national alerts earlier than 10 minutes, McIntyre said.
Chicago, Rockford, Quincy and Springfield were among the affected areas, engineers said.
FEMA doesn’t know how many stations were affected by the errant EAS message. Engineering sources told RW they believe approximately 500 Illinois stations were affected. FEMA believes stations in neighboring St. Louis, parts of Wisconsin, northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan could have received the false presidential alert too.
Velasquez also stated that FEMA used a “hot” or active code rather than a test code for the test message. FEMA said it had no choice. Unlike test codes for mandated weekly and monthly EAS testing, the federal agency stated, there is no test code for the president to send a national message using EAS.
Because the national alert is a unique code, the only way to gauge how the receivers and equipment will react and process the alert using the new delivery path was to send an EAN code to specified receivers in a controlled test, FEMA said.
In response to a query from RW, FEMA said the new satellite distribution system has not been tested in other markets and no additional EAN tests are planned because the Richmond and Cleveland tests were successful.
When asked why testing occurred at the height of morning drive, a FEMA official responded that the test “was not intended for public consumption.”
The errant presidential alert message points to the fragility of EAS, one engineer told RW; the sooner the broadcast distribution of EAS is supplanted by other technologies, the better, he said.
The FCC has an open EAS proceeding underway and has solicited comments on how to improve the system. Recently, it adopted an order that requires participants to accept messages using Common Alerting Protocol after FEMA adopts standards. CAP involves the transmission of EAS alerts as text, audio and video via broadcast, cable, satellite, and other networks. The FCC also is revisiting the appropriateness of unattended operations for all stations and how that affects the transmission of EAS alerts in connection with its review of public interest requirements for IBOC.
Asked whether tightening unattended operations rules would have made a difference in this case, one Illinois engineer said he doubted so because “no one at the station could have stopped the message.”