At 2pm Wednesday, television programs and radio shows were interrupted with a familiar message "This is a test." But it wasn't just any test.
This was the first nationwide test of the Emergency Broadcast System.
In the 1960s, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Emergency Broadcast System was created, then upgraded to the Emergency Alert System in the 1990s.
The purpose of the Emergency Alert test, is to see how prepared the United States is in the event of a natural disaster, or terrorist attack.
The EAS uses a "daisy chain" approach, similar to a church phone chain, where a few stations in each state relay the message to secondary stations, which in turn relay their signals to the public.
One advantage to this system is that it isn't likely to get clogged, like cellphone networks often do during emergencies, as what happened in the 9/11 attacks. However, the EAS, does have it's flaws.
"Alan Novistky, WDBJ7 Chief Engineer admits "It is a daisy-chain, so theoretically, if one station that's in a relay network fails, it's going to prevent everyone later down the chain from getting it."LOCAL EMERGENCY ALERT TEST
The original message was sent from FEMA offices in Northern Virginia. Since WDBJ is relatively close to the message POE (Point of Entry), the alert went from Fredericksburg, to Richmond, to Lynchburg then to Roanoke. That took around 5 minutes to happen. WDBJ7 then aired that alert to our over-the-air, cable and satellite viewers.
The test was not without flaws. Most states got the alert at the scheduled time, but others did not. After all, the purpose of the test is to find out how well the system would work in an actual emergency.
Here's a few of the flubbed alerts reported to the MediaDecoder blog:
- DirecTV subscribers said their TV sets played the Lady Gaga song “Paparazzi” when the test was under way.
- Some Time Warner Cable subscribers in New York said the test never appeared on screen.
- Some Comcast subscribers in northern Virginia said their TV sets were switched over to QVC before the alert was shown.
- A viewer in Minneapolis said he saw the message about three minutes late.
- A viewer in Chattanooga, Tenn., said she saw it about 10 minutes late.
- In Greensboro, N.C., a local reporter saw the alert on all the cable news channels but on none of the local broadcast networks.
- In Los Angeles, some cable customers said the alert lasted almost half an hour late
Satellite distributors like DirecTV and DishNetwork along with cable distributors like Comcast participated along with the broadcast stations. Internet connections were not included in the test, which led some to question how comprehensive the alert system could be.
CHANGE IN HOW WE GET ALERTS
In the era of social media and the internet, we often know of a disaster long before we would get the broadcast alert.
One example is the August earthquake in Louisa county. Tweets and Facebook messages were sent out by people who felt the seismic waves.
Those sitting at their desk in New York City knew the quake was coming before they felt it.
A more sophisticated technology is being introduced that would allow the signal to be sent via the internet along with photos and multimedia. So during an emergency such as an Amber Alert, broadcast stations could pass along the photo along with the alert message.