More likely than not, you've heard the emergency tone or signal on your TV or radio when your area is threatened by severe weather or as a test. That's the Emergency Alert System (EAS). A new system was tested in early January 2010 to make the system more effective in case of a national crisis.

EAS

The EAS has been in use since 1997. It replaced the old Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) that had been in service since the early 1960's. While its name and technology changed over the years, the idea remains the same: To give the federal government - and particularly the President - the ability to address the entire country in case of a national crisis, such as a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

The EAS may be activated at a national level by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). However, it's commonly used at the state and local levels to warn of AMBER alerts and severe weather forecasts from local offices of the National Weather Service (NWS).

Under federal law, most US-based television and radio stations must transmit emergency messages or alerts when the EAS is activated by the President or FEMA. Also, broadcasters must test the system periodically, typically once a month for 30-45 seconds.

New Code

The "Emergency Action Notification" (EAN) code recently tested in Alaska is different from the EAS. It's designed to make sure that the President may, almost immediately, address all or part of the nation in case of an emergency. Also, unlike other tests, it lasted a little more than three minutes during which they broadcasted a test message.

According to the Alaska Department of Public Safety, Alaska was chosen as the site for the first EAN test because of its remoteness and success with its Tsunami and Amber Alert Warning Systems. Researchers declared a success, even though some "glitches" were reported. Old equipment was the source.

Typically, when broadcasters experience glitches in their EAS transmissions they receive a fine or penalty from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This federal agency makes and enforced the laws operating the EAS. With the Alaska test, however, the FCC waived any penalties for system or equipment glitches.

Work Continues

Continued testing of the EAN code makes sure it works across the nation if it's ever needed in an actual emergency. But FEMA is working on another alert system, too. The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) alerts more people more quickly than the EAS. How?

While the EAS system relies almost completely on television and radio transmissions, IPAWS sends warnings over the internet with email and videos, as well by telephone, both cellular and land-lines. These are in addition to the regular EAS television and radio warnings.

Eventually, the EAN code will let us get national warnings faster, and IPAWS will make things even faster. But any warning system is good only if you actually take action. Having an action plan in case of an emergency is a good idea for everyone.

Questions For Your Attorney

  • Do cities and counties have to pay to use the EAS for weather alerts? If so, who gets the money?
  • Is there any way I can challenge a penalty the FCC imposed on my radio station for having out-dated equipment?
  • I use a HAM radio as a hobby. Am I required to broadcast EAS alerts?

Tagged as: Government, national emergency alert, government lawyer