FCC, FEMA conduct first test of national emergency alert system

The Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency conducted the first national test of the emergency alert system on Wednesday afternoon, interrupting radio and television programs across the country at roughly 2 p.m. EST.

The sound and images accompanying the alert varied based on location and TV providers. Comcast viewers in Washington saw an image of a screen informing them of the test at 2:03 p.m., accompanied by a voice message from emergency officials. The test lasted roughly 30 seconds.

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In the event of an actual emergency, consumers' cable boxes would have automatically been tuned to a local news channel to receive further information. The federal government also has the ability to send a text message to every phone in the country in the event of a catastrophe.

The Emergency Alert System had never before been tested on a national scale, but it has been tested on the local and state level frequently since it was created decades ago. The test closely resembled the local tests, with cable boxes flashing "EAS" during the interruption.

Results of the first national test of the emergency alert system appear to be uneven, with customers in several markets reporting glitches or having missed the test altogether.

Numerous viewers took to Twitter to report the test having skipped their TV provider; others referenced the appearance of random bits of video or music during the test. 

“The nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System test was administered and the FCC and FEMA are currently collecting data about the results," said an FCC spokesman in a statement shortly after the alert test. 

"This initial test was the first time we have tested the reach and scope of this technology and additional improvements that should be made to the system as we move forward. Only through comprehensively testing, analyzing, and improving these technologies can we ensure an effective and reliable national emergency alert and warning system," the spokesman added.

"As we have been explaining throughout this process, this initial test was the first time we have gotten a sense of the reach and scope of this technology. It was our opportunity to get a sense of what worked, what didn’t and additional improvements that need to be made to the system as we move forward," said FEMA Assistant Administrator for National Continuity Programs Damon Penn.

Senate Homeland Security chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) issued a statement arguing the glitches were evidence more work needs to be done.

"The weaknesses exposed by today's test of the emergency alert system are unacceptable," Lieberman said. "Government and media carriers must work together to make sure the system does what it is intended to do, which is to transmit a nationwide message from the President in a crisis." 

Lieberman still commended FEMA for conducting the test, which he called "long-overdue." 

"Without it, we would never have known the extent of the system's vulnerabilities," he added.

“We are in the process of gathering feedback from our member companies about today’s first-ever test of the national Emergency Alert System (EAS).  We do know that in many places, the Emergency Alert Notification flowed through to viewers without a hitch," said the National Cable and Telecommunications Association in a statement. "However, we also know that in some places, it did not.”

This story has been updated.