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Nationwide emergency warning test needs fine-tuning

November 9, 2011 |  4:36 pm


The first nationwide test of the emergency warning system failed to reach all television and radio stations in the country, but federal officials said they will make improvements. 

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, called weaknesses in the system exposed by the test "unacceptable."

"Large areas of the country received the test but some areas did not,'' the Federal Communications Commission said in a statement. Some TV stations stayed on the test longer than the planned 30 seconds. A Washington, D.C., station was stuck on a test graphic for four minutes, ABC News reported.

Some TV viewers never saw any test. "Nothing happened," read a Twitter message from Arkansas.

The FCC said the test, scheduled for 2 p.m. Eastern, "served the purpose for which it was intended -- to identify gaps and generate a comprehensive set of data to help strengthen our ability to communicate during real emergencies."

"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," read the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s blog. "It’s only through comprehensively testing, analyzing, and improving these technologies that we can ensure the most effective and reliable emergency alert and warning systems available at a moment’s notice in a time of real national emergency."

Lieberman commended FEMA for carrying out the test but 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."

Federal officials took great pains to put the word out beforehand about the test to avoid panic like that caused by Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of a fictional Martian invasion in New Jersey, fearing it could tie up 911 phone lines.

The system is often tested locally -- and has been used in local emergencies -- but it had never been tested on radio and TV stations coast to coast at the same time.


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Photo: A radio tuner module, remote control, and the XM-ready car stereo receiver. Television and radio stations nationwide were supposed to broadcastthe emergency warning system. Credit: Al Schaben / Los Angeles Times