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Does EAS Have a Place in an Earthquake?

One engineer writes: "Speaking as an East Coast-based broadcaster, testing this $2,700 box every week to see if it works (under penalty of a fine) when even an earthquake isn’t ‘major’ enough to warrant legitimate activation just makes me scratch my head in wonderment.”

Paul McLane is U.S. editor in chief.

Should EAS have been activated during or after yesterday’s East Coast earthquake?

Al Peterson, a Washington-based radio network engineer and former colleague here at Radio World, heard no evidence of EAS; nor did I. We were not at the epicenter in and near D.C., but we were plenty close to get a real good scare.

I’ve since confirmed with the staff at WTOP, our local primary in the Washington area, that there was no EAS alert. The station’s Mike McMearty added: “But then there wasn’t much actionable information to pass on to our audience and, of course, no advance notice of the quake.” I also emailed the Virginia state EAS chair.

While waiting for that reply, I asked Al Peterson what he thought an EAS message should have said, had one been issued, given that indeed there had been no warning (outside of weird animal behavior reported after the fact).

“There’s the stock EQW warning that is built into units like the Sage Endec,” he emailed me.

“What follows the data squirt, however, is up to the broadcaster. Like any emergency, it depends on the event and the circumstances. I’ve always believed the process was meant for conditionally-appropriate use even *during* emergencies; not only as an early warning system.

“An EAS activation would, by design, put a primary newser’s programming up on the automated unmanned music stations in the market to disseminate information across the widest audience,” he continued. “In our own case, it probably could have included proper evacuation instructions from D.C., reports on damage, a direct audio line to fire and police, where to go if immediate emergency medical treatment was necessary, among other details.”

Yes, that’s basically exactly what WTOP was doing all day yesterday, but without the alerting tones. “If the damage were more extensive with considerable loss of life, then perhaps an activation would have been in order,” Al continued. “Either this may have been too minor an event to have authorized one, or everyone just got too busy to remember to hit the button.

“In the Midwest, thunderstorms and tornadoes are dangerous enough to justify frequent activation, and rightly so. I don’t know how they work it in California when a quake rattles their teeth. But speaking as an East Coast-based broadcaster, testing this $2,700 box every week to see if it works (under penalty of a fine) when even an earthquake isn’t ‘major’ enough to warrant legitimate activation just makes me scratch my head in wonderment.”

I share Al’s comments because I find that his thinking echoes that of many engineers in the trenches. Al adds that he thinks EAS deserved to be used in 9/11 too. In fact he made that point in an editorial he wrote in Radio World back on the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

I subsequently heard back to my earlier query to the Virginia EAS chair, Mike Fleming of Clear Channel.

“I believe the point of EAS is to alert the public of an impending situation where there is imminent danger to public safety and there is actionable information the public needs to know in order for them to make decisions,” he wrote me.

“Remember, broadcast stations typically do not decide to originate an EAS without being asked to do so by some government official or agency. In the case of an earthquake, by the time government officials determine what happened, put together what they what to say about it and recommendations on what to do, it’s over. After the initial quake the public is already alert to something has happened and they start tuning in their radios and TVs to find out exactly what happen and to what extent they are affected.”

He said that in almost every other situation there is, however, a small, lead time in which the public needs to be told something is about to happen and here’s what they need to do. “I think that‘s where EAS comes in.”

Fleming added: “That was yesterday, now we’re on Irene watch – don’t you love Virginia?” 

(By the way, I contacted several broadcast groups with East Coast holdings to see if any had experienced station damage or infrastructure issues; so far all have reported no major problems, and NAB’s staff said they’ve not heard of any. As always I welcome info from you about your own experiences; write to [email protected].)