IF This Was an Actual Emergency? It IS an Actual Emergency!


American broadcasters are gearing up for the first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System. But we’ve got a real emergency on our hands well in advance of the test. I mean, have you actually read, seen or heard the PSAs being distributed to broadcasters to inform listeners about this exercise? They’re abominable.  They’ll go in one ear and out the other – more background noise between music or chatter or commercials. Or be consigned to the low-listenership dayparts. Or not aired at all. And that’s a damned shame. Especially given the huge amount of great available talent, any of whom could have been tasked to create an in-your-face EAS awareness campaign, like this historic gem, which actually aired for a time on WHEN/Syracuse.
Mind you, I am advocate for emergency alerting systems like EAS.  But let’s be honest: EAS is a system that has cost broadcasters millions of dollars collectively, has never been used nationally, and is not used as often – or as well — as it should be regionally and locally.

Most folks know only this about EAS: it’s that thing with the annoying digital tones that plays just before a commercial or a promo or “much more music,” and is never followed by a really good explanation of  how it does what it does, and why we should care.

And it’s fair to say that what people DO know about EAS, and its EBS predecessor, is not altogether positive. Remember the terrifying 1971 EAN misfire (captured for eternity by WOWO/Ft Wayne, IN)? Or this mistake that scared Chicago in June 2007?  Or more dramatically, the Minot, ND train derailment of January 2002?

To this day, the we-say/they-say debate over what really happened in Minot goes on. This much is not in dispute: A freight train derailed near Minot, spewing a toxic cloud of anhydrous ammonia. And no warnings were broadcast by any of the nine signals licensed to Minot.

Local officials say they were unable to reach anyone at the designated EAS station for Minot, and also were unable to fire an EAS program interrupt.

Authorities blamed the station; the station blamed a technical issue over which it had no control — and operational ineptitude on the part authorities. And at the end of the day, one person was dead; a thousand more were hurt. And we think a federal-level test of EAS will prevent snafus like this from happening again?

A hazmat spill, a massive tornado, a raging flood, mudslide or wildfire that impacts local communities is more likely, day to day, than a national crisis. THAT’S where EAS needs to be exercised more frequently, and local officials need to know “cold:” how to make it work. They’re not part of the national test, and they’re not routinely part of any local tests, either.

Beyond EAS itself, broadcasters must back the system up with the internal horses they need to keep a steady stream of reliable, useful information flowing to listeners and viewers during and after an incident. What’s more, stations MUST have plans to deal with the threats THEY’D confront in any catastrophe – to assure operational continuity. At minimum, that means at least one human – on site, all the time — who knows what buttons to push and what phone calls to make.

So all hail the national EAS test. And let’s put some of our great local talent to work generating PSAs that are meaningful and informative – that engage listeners so they appreciate the importance of EAS. It is critically important that they understand those digital chirps signal a need to listen up for vital information that could save their lives and property.

If we as broadcasters fail to act proactively where EAS is concerned – fail to engage local officials in real exercises, and fail to impart a real understanding of the importance of EAS to our viewers and listeners, we will have only ourselves to blame when – not if – a Minot happens again.

–Howard B. Price, CBCP, MBCI
Dir., Business Continuity & Crisis Management
ABC News   [email protected]