First nationwide test of emergency alert system today

By Tom Ensey - email

(RNN) - Don't panic - yet.

Starting 9 a.m. (HST) ominous tones and beeps start blasting from every TV and radio in the U.S., it's a test. It is only a test.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are set to conduct the first test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS), which has been set up to allow the president of the United States to address the American people within a matter of minutes in the event of a national emergency.

The National Weather Service, governors and local authorities also will be able to use the system for more localized alerts, such as tornado warnings or even a toxic chemical spill.

Wednesday's real-time, nationwide test is the only way to be sure the complex, expansive system works, said Jamie Barnett, chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.

"As recent disasters … at home and in Japan have reminded us, a reliable and effective emergency alert and warning system is key to ensuring the public's safety," Barnett said in a news release.

Children of the Cold War era will remember similar alerts that interrupted regular TV programming beginning in 1963 with the establishment of the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS). The EAS has been in existence since 1994.

This will be the first test of the new, broader system that includes TV, radio, cable operators, satellite digital audio radio service providers, direct broadcast satellite service providers and wire line video service providers.

The objective of the EAS boils down to saving lives and protecting property, according to FEMA spokesman Damon Penn. He said Wednesday's test is not "pass or fail," but will establish a baseline for improvements to the system, which will undergo further testing.

It is "one of many tools in our information communications toolbox, and we will work on additional channels that can be a lifeline of information for people during an emergency," Penn said.

The program is designed  to include new media as well as traditional broadcast outlets.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) has been working with local forecasters and authorities to localize the system so severe weather warnings can reach people who might otherwise be out of touch.

Eventually, anyone with a smartphone will be within reach, said Curtis Carey, communications director for NOAA.

"It's not something you'd have to sign up for," Carey said. "If you're driving through Biloxi, MS, and there is a tornado in the area, you don't have to have an app on your phone from a local TV station. It doesn't matter. If you pass a cell phone tower, that alert will go out to you."

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