Passing the (EAS) Test

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Passing the (EAS) Test

Dec 1, 2011 2:00 AM, By Chriss Scherer, editor

The first nationwide EAS test was held on Nov. 9, and while it did not go exactly by the book, it is safe to consider the test a success despite the troubles. The test was sent right at 2 p.m. ET as planned, but it the originating EAS unit's time clock was three minutes fast. That confused some people and few EAS units that delayed relaying for three minutes, but it had had no effect on the overall test. The real problem occurred a few seconds after the test began.

The test was distributed via the PEP station network and through the NPR squawk channel. The Nov. 29 FEMA webinar reported no problems with the NPR feed, but there was a problem with one PEP station that appears to have caused a delayed echo loop through the entire system.

A short time after the test began, a second set of EAS headers was heard, albeit at a slightly lower level. This echo repeated at a reduced level throughout the test. Digital Alert Systems analyzed the audio, and the delayed tones came from PEP station WCCO. The Nov. 29 FEMA webinar clarified that PEP stations received the test feed via a phone bridge, and it the feed from WCCO got back into the phone line and was redistributed.

With the duplicate headers, some EAS units played the audio feed as it was, while others muted their audio outputs once the second header was received. For the units that muted, the test audio got to "This is a test of the Emergency Alert System ..." and then stopped.

During the test, I listened to two commercial radio stations and watched the PBS affiliate. I also recorded two commercial TV stations. The radio stations and the PBS station ran the test fine, although their EAS units muted the audio on the second header. The two commercial TV stations had problems. One did not air the test at all; the other started the test but did not carry the EOM.

Despite the trouble, many still consider the test a success, including the FCC and FEMA. Before the test, I know many engineers were worried about not passing. This wasn't a graded test in that respect, and I said from the start, if it fails, let it fail. That's how we will learn where the holes are. Still, some stations were looking for ways to patch the system before it occurred to ensure they would pass.

Regardless of any good-intentioned pre-test efforts (successful or not), we have obviously found a few holes in the system.

The FEMA webinar did not say when the next national test would occur, but it could be as soon as mid-2012. There may also be some closed-circuit tests. I have heard some stations say they will not participate because of the problems. I understand the reaction, but unless all stations participate, it won't be an accurate national test.

Perhaps FEMA will originate tests to the PEP stations with an RMT or demo code to ensure the first link in the chain is fixed. And the chain itself is still an issue. While most would prefer a more direct means of distributing a message to all stations, in a real crisis, the broadcast stations are still the best suited and most ubiquitous method of distributing information to the public and to each other.

The analysis of this test will be used to plan for the next test, but I also expect the results will be taken into consideration for the expected rewrite of the Part 11 FCC Rules on EAS.

December 2011

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