What Exactly Is the Emergency Alert System?

Prior to the advent of emergency warning systems, people were frequently sitting ducks. A hurricane could be 24 hours from landfall but the coastal population might have no idea.

Thankfully, technology and weather prediction accuracy have improved. Now we’re much better informed. And we can make decisions that could save our lives. Such as boarding up homes and businesses, or evacuating.

The current official warning system is the Emergency Alert System (EAS). It’s used by state and local authorities to deliver emergency information to communities.

This can include emergency weather information. Or Amber alerts. Or even incoming missile warnings.

Most alerts are weather-related

Local alerts are delivered through a wide variety of sources. Including radio and television broadcasters. Plus cable systems, satellite radio and television providers, and wireline video providers.

Those providers are required by law to allow the U.S. president to address the public during a national emergency.

Working with the EAS and Wireless Emergency Alerts are several agencies. Such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As well as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Alerts are created by authorized federal, state and local authorities. The majority of alerts originate from the National Weather Service. In response to severe weather events. But alerts also come from state and local authorities.

Looking back

As you know, I like to occasionally toss in a small amount of history for many of the subjects we cover. This one is no exception.

The EAS became operational on January 1, 1997. It had been approved more than two years earlier by the FCC.

The EAS replaced the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), which had been in use since 1963. The EBS was used approximately 20,000 times to broadcast civil emergency messages. As well as warnings of severe weather hazards.

Going back even farther, EBS replaced CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation). It was established by President Harry S. Truman in 1951. 

Emergency radio is a must

The number and severity of extreme weather events have increased. So, emergency alerts have become more important.

NOAA urges every home to have an emergency weather radio available. Plus businesses and schools. As well as churches and other public gathering places.

Among weather warnings NOAA has issued that have helped saved lives are alerts about blizzards. Plus flooding, high winds, storms, tornadoes and hurricanes.

They’ve also provided information about Amber alerts and fire emergencies. And civil and law emergencies, including rioting and escaped convicts. 

Timing can be everything

The typical radio does not provide these types of alerts. A radio host may break into regular programming to make an announcement. But the warning itself comes through emergency radios. 

Those warnings from emergency radios always arrive sooner than ones from conventional radios. That time difference is sometimes crucial.  

Some people are concerned they might get too many alerts that don’t pertain to them. But weather warnings can be filtered to your geographic area.

And your weather radio can be programmed to scan for alerts coming from specific counties.         

Disturbing false alarms

While the EAS is a wonderful service, it’s not perfect. Occasionally there have been false alarms from human error that have caused panic. Cyberattacks have also caused false alarms. Here are four noteworthy examples.

  •           On February 1, 2005, an alert was mistakenly issued. It called for the immediate evacuation of the entire state of Connecticut. An operator made an error during a scheduled statewide test.
  •           On June 26, 2007, an Emergency Action Notification was accidentally issued in Illinois. A new satellite receiver was mistakenly connected to a live system. Before final testing had been completed. 
  •           On September 3, 2016, an alert was displayed on television. It called for the immediate evacuation of Suffolk County in New York state. A correction called for only a voluntary evacuation of Fire Island. This was in the wake of Tropical Storm Hermine. 
  •           On January 13, 2018, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency mistakenly issued an emergency alert. It warned of an inbound ballistic missile threatening the region. Making matters worse, the announcement claimed it was not a drill. It took 38 minutes before Hawaiian authorities informed the public that it was a false alarm.  

Of course, the vast majority of alerts are accurate. And they’ve helped millions of people deal with emergencies. 

Yes, mistakes are going to happen. They’re inevitable. But you don’t need to make the mistake of being unprepared. 

Having an emergency radio on hand means you’ll have warnings about emergencies before most will. And that could be a lifesaver for you and your family.  

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