Friday, November 11, 2011

EAS: Politics vs. Engineering

Was the November 9th National EAS Test a qualified success or a total failure?

Like most things in life, it kinda depends on your point of view.

First, the system itself did indeed fail during the test.  The final tally will take weeks, but there are tons of anecdotal reports that most stations did receive the data tones, but did not receive proper audio.   Early reports indicate that a loop of the audio (including the data tones) played over itself, delayed by several seconds.   The second airing of the data tones caused many stations' EAS encoders/decoders (aka "endecs") to stop outright and mute the test audio until the "End of Message" (EOM) data tones were sent at the end of the test, 30 seconds later.   Other endecs just played the whole thing, looped audio playing over the main audio like a bizarre version of "row-row-row your boat".   Given the widespread nature of this effect, the thinking is that it must've happened at the national level (FEMA) somehow.

The TV side of things, including satellite TV, may have had a similar issue in play, just with different effects: namely a Lady Gaga video playing across DirecTV, for example.

There's also reports that some stations didn't get anything at all due to equipment failures at the state and local levels.  Fortunately these seem relatively uncommon.

However, the purpose of a test is to test things!  The only failure of a test is if the test doesn't yield any viable data.   This test did yield viable data about the system as a whole, and about several of its weak points, and about things that need to be fixed.   In that sense, the test was a success.   In fact, the only true failure would be if the FCC doesn't coordinate another test and soon.  Radio broadcasting giant Clear Channel thinks so: their SVP for Engineering in the Central Region, Dan Mettler, says "let’s do another EAN national test in less than 90 days while this topic is still top of mind on how the first test went." I agree.  We've had one test.  Let's give everyone a month or two to make corrections, and perhaps enough time to get through the holidays, and then let's test it again.

One interesting postscript to the test is what it didn't test: the National Weather Service (NWS) and their capabilities in the EAS system.  The EAN was deliberately not sent over the NWS network.

Now this is interesting because, arguably, the only arena in which EAS still matters is natural disasters, which are largely the NWS's domain.  Why are only natural disasters (and limited man-made disasters, like nuclear power plant radiation leaks) the arena where EAS still matters?  Because EAS's chief ability is to distribute a small amount of crucial information across a lot of people in a very short amount of time.  In 1997, when EAS was put into operation, the chief concern was nuclear war.  If the Soviet Union, or later the Russians, launched nuclear-tipped ICBM's, there could be less than 30 minutes for the President to confirm the launch, initiate the EAS, warn the public, and for the public to get into bomb shelters.  EAS could be the difference between life and death for millions.

But that was before the advent of widespread high-speed internet, before cellphones, before Twitter and Facebook, and - most importantly - before the 24 hour cable news networks' demands for instant news every second of every day.

While the networks that power cellphones and the internet are disturbingly fragile in the event of a natural disaster, the 24-hour news cycle behind it is always there.   If an event has already happened, or is not happening until an hour or two in the future, then conventional media can - and usually will - do a far better job informing the public than EAS will.

It's only when an event occurs that will cause another, related, event...and that second event is the one the public needs to be rapidly informed about.  For example, an earthquake occurs in deep ocean and triggers a tsunami that'll hit land in 10 minutes.  Or a nuclear power plant has a leak and the fallout will reach a nearby city in a few hours.   Or a thunderstorm happens over a mountain and a flash flood will hit the town at the base in a matter of minutes.   Or a lightning storm triggers a wildfire and prevailing winds whip it into a firestorm that's roaring towards a populated area.  All of these events are where conventional media isn't fast enough, but EAS can be.   And, as you'll notice, most are events the National Weather Service is equipped to track and issue EAS warnings for.

So why wasn't EAS tested through the National Weather Service?  Because no stations are required to monitor the NWS for EAS.  Some do, but many don't.  In other words, the most effective method to deploy EAS is one that many stations aren't using and aren't required to use.

This may be changing.  Recently, with the advent of Common Alerting Protocol, or CAP, being added to EAS, there are changes that may allow states to mandate participation in local, state and weather-related alerts.   The clunky nature and history of EAS means there's a justifiable trepidation by many broadcasters about this. But it also represents a tremendous opportunity for EAS to be used in the most efficient and effective manner.

Let's hope the National EAS Test, if nothing else, pushes EAS to the forefront of the discussion amongst broadcasters and emergency management officials, so that it can be implemented in a manner that best benefits all involved.

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