Stupid Question ™
Oct. 24, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: Why wasn’t the Emergency Broadcast System used on Sept. 11? Didn’t that count as an emergency?
A: The silence of the Emergency Alert System (EAS), as it is now known, emphasizes the two main criticisms of it: It’s unnecessary and prone to failure.
In theory, the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), established in 1963, allowed the president to take over all TV and radio stations like some comic-book villain. It worked by notifying certain large stations, which then broadcast that annoying two-tone warning signal, which automatically switched on EBS transmitters in other stations in their area, and so on.
EBS was later expanded to allow for state and local emergency warnings.
The EAS, instituted in 1997, is a digital version of EBS, requiring less obnoxious testing and including all cable channels. It also includes the new AMBER Alerts for child kidnappings.
EAS can also contact specially equipped pagers, cell phones, TVs and radios directly, turning them on automatically and transmitting the warning. But so few items are equipped, and so few people know about it, that it’s virtually useless.
No president has ever used EBS or EAS. On the state and local level, they have been used at least 20,000 times, mostly for storm warnings.
But the system is notorious for silence during major disasters, unreliability and obsolescence in the mass-media era. In 1971, a fake nuclear attack warning accidentally went out but was barely noticed, both because so few people paid attention and because so few stations actually broadcast it. (Participation in EAS remains voluntary.)
Partnership for Public Warning (PPW), a Virginia-based think tank, formed after Sept. 11 to address such failings.
Peter Ward, chair of PPW’s board, told me that EAS, while put on standby by the White House, was unnecessary on the national level on Sept. 11.
The news media did a fine job, so we knew about as much as the president did. And when Bush finally decided to talk, he simply requested airtime and got it.
And locally, EAS failed. After the first plane hit the World Trade Center, the Federal Aviation Administration, via the North American Aerospace Command, notified the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) about the other two planes that hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon about 15 minutes later.
“FEMA should have notified local officials, who would have issued an EAS alert, but this did not happen,” Ward said. “The exact reason for this failure in communication has not been investigated.”
In fairness, Ward notes that Sept. 11 was so novel—planes used as bombs, skyscrapers collapsing—that confusion reigned and solid info was hard to find. But then, emergencies are like that.
Ironically enough, FEMA and the White House leaned away from using EAS in part because of fears of creating panic, Ward said. For the same reason, the Federal Communications Commission told broadcasters on Sept. 12, 2001, to temporarily stop testing EAS.
Some experts argue a warning could have saved lives in the World Trade Center. Pentagon employees received an evacuation warning after the plane hit there via an in-house commercial system that called their cell phones and pagers.