A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What happened to the Emergency Broadcast System?

December 7, 1998

Dear Straight Dope:

Growing up in the seventies and eighties, I remember radio airplay being interrupted by "tests" run by the Emergency Broadcast System: "This is a test." When I heard something similar on the radio the other day, it made me realize that I haven't heard said tests for quite some time, and it got me thinking. Radio stations do not seem to be playing them with anywhere near the same frequency as they used to. Were they primarily a Cold War era necessity? In the case of nuclear war or something? Or were they for all emergencies, including tornados, floods, snow storms, etc.? Were they ever not just a test? I don't recall ever hearing them tell me "it was for real this time, no kidding around!" Also, who were "they"? Who is the Emergency Broadcast System — FCC, CIA, CNN, NORAD?? Who ran it, and who funded it? Is it still around? Will someone still give me "further instructions of what to do in my area in the case of a real emergency"?

SDStaff Songbird replies:

Miss those old two-tone attention signals, do we?

Established in 1963 by the Federal Communications Commission, the EBS was designed to transmit messages on all broadcast stations (AM, FM and TV), giving the President a way to address the American people in the event of a national emergency. State and local agencies were also allowed to transmit emergency information via the EBS.

As to whether broadcasts were ever NOT a test — absolutely. In the past year, we Californians have heard the EBS signal intoned many times as emergency officials came on the air to warn us of levy breaks and nearby floods.

The EBS was retired in January 1998 and replaced with the new state-of-the-art Emergency Alert System (EAS) — isn't there always an upgrade? This new system provides access to broadcast stations, cable systems and participating satellite programmers for the transmission of emergency messages (and less obtrusive weekly tests). The EAS uses digital codes developed by the National Weather Service (NWS). NWS offices can originate coded messages that are area specific and will only activate EAS decoders and send emergency warnings to people in the affected geographic area.

Even if you aren't plugged in, the EAS provides the option to permit new specially equipped consumer products — TVs, radios, pagers, etc. — to "turn themselves on" to receive and deliver the emergency message.

But please, rest assured that if this had been an actual emergency, Cecil would have told you where to go.

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