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The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is a national warning system in the United States put into place on January 1, 1997 (approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in November 1994),[1] when it replaced the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), which in turn replaced CONELRAD. It is jointly coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The EAS regulations and standards are governed by the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau of the FCC.

As with its predecessors, the system is primarily designed to allow the president to address the country via all radio and television stations, in the event of a national emergency. Despite this, neither the system nor its predecessors have been used in this manner, due to the ubiquity of news coverage in these situations. In practice, it is more commonly used to distribute information regarding imminent threats to public safety, such as severe weather situations (including flash floods and tornadoes), AMBER Alerts of child abductions, and other civil emergencies.

Authorized organizations are able to disseminate and coordinate emergency alerts and warning messages through EAS. The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) is used as a backend to distribute alert information via EAS and related technologies such as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), using Common Alerting Protocol (CAP).[2] EAS messages are transmitted primarily via terrestrial and satellite radio and television (including broadcast and multichannel television), which are required to participate in the system.[3]

A Required Monthly Test (RMT) transmitted in New Jersey on April 15, 2014 as shown on a television set

Required monthly tests (RMTs) are generally originated by the local or state primary station, a state emergency management agency, or by the National Weather Service and are then relayed by broadcast stations and cable channels. RMTs must be performed between 8:30 a.m. and local sunset during odd numbered months, and between local sunset and 8:30 a.m. during even numbered months. Received monthly tests must be retransmitted within 60 minutes of receipt.[12][19] Additionally, an RMT should not be scheduled or conducted during an event of great importance such as a pre-announced presidential speech, coverage of a national/local election, major local or national news coverage outside regularly scheduled newscast hours or a major national sporting event such as the Super Bowl or World Series, with other events such as the Indianapolis 500 and Olympic Games mentioned in individual EAS state plans.

An RWT is not required during a calendar week in which an RMT is scheduled. No testing has to be done during a calendar week in which all parts of the EAS (header burst, attention signal, audio message, and end of message burst) have been legitimately activated.

In July 2018, in response to the aftermath of the false missile alert in Hawaii earlier in the year (which was caused by operator error during an internal drill protocol), the

Required monthly tests (RMTs) are generally originated by the local or state primary station, a state emergency management agency, or by the National Weather Service and are then relayed by broadcast stations and cable channels. RMTs must be performed between 8:30 a.m. and local sunset during odd numbered months, and between local sunset and 8:30 a.m. during even numbered months. Received monthly tests must be retransmitted within 60 minutes of receipt.[12][19] Additionally, an RMT should not be scheduled or conducted during an event of great importance such as a pre-announced presidential speech, coverage of a national/local election, major local or national news coverage outside regularly scheduled newscast hours or a major national sporting event such as the Super Bowl or World Series, with other events such as the Indianapolis 500 and Olympic Games mentioned in individual EAS state plans.

An RWT is not required during a calendar week in which an RMT is scheduled. No testing has to be done during a calendar week in which all parts of the EAS (header burst, attention signal, audio message, and end of message burst) have been legitimately activated.

In July 2018, in response to the aftermath of the false missile alert in Hawaii earlier in the year (which was caused by operator error during an internal drill protocol), the FCC announced that it would take steps to promote public awareness and improve efficiency of the system, including requiring safeguards to prevent distribution of false alarms, the ability to authorize "live code" tests—which would simulate the process and response to an actual emergency, and authorizations to use the EAS tones in public service announcements that promote awareness of the system.[20][21]

National per

An RWT is not required during a calendar week in which an RMT is scheduled. No testing has to be done during a calendar week in which all parts of the EAS (header burst, attention signal, audio message, and end of message burst) have been legitimately activated.

In July 2018, in response to the aftermath of the false missile alert in Hawaii earlier in the year (which was caused by operator error during an internal drill protocol), the FCC announced that it would take steps to promote public awareness and improve efficiency of the system, including requiring safeguards to prevent distribution of false alarms, the ability to authorize "live code" tests—which would simulate the process and response to an actual emergency, and authorizations to use the EAS tones in public service announcements that promote awareness of the system.[20][21]

On February 3, 2011, the FCC announced plans and procedures for national EAS tests, which involve all television and radio stations connected to the EAS, as well as all cable and satellite services in the United States. They are not relayed on the NOAA Weather Radio (NOAA/NWS) network as it is an initiation-only network and does not receive messages from the PEP network.[22][23] The national test would transmit and relay an Emergency Action Notification on November 9, 2011 at 2:00 p.m. EST.[24][25]

The FCC found that only half of participants received the message via IPAWS, and some "failed to receive or retransmit alerts due to erroneous equipment configuration, equipment readiness and upkeep issues, and confusion regarding EAS rules and technical requirements", and that participation among low-power broadcasters was low. To reduce viewer confusion, the FCC stated that future national tests would be delivered under the new event code "National Periodic Test" ("NPT"), and list "United States" as its location.[26][27] A second national test, now classified as an NPT, occurred on September 28, 2016 as part of National Preparedness Month.[28][29] A third national periodic test occurred on September 27, 2017.[30]

The fourth NPT occurred on October 3, 2018 (delayed from September 20, 2018 due to Hurricane Florence). It was preceded by the first mandatory wireless emergency alert test.[31][32][33] The fifth NPT occurred on August 7, 2019, moved up from past years to prevent it from occurring during the heart of the Atlantic hurricane season. The test focused exclusively on distribution to broadcast outlets and television providers via the primary entry point network, in order to gauge the efficiency of alert distribution in the event that the internet cannot be used.[34][35]

The 2020 NPT was postponed to 2021 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic "out of consideration for the unusual circumstances and working conditions for those in the broadcast and cable industry."[36]

Additions and proposals

The EAS can only be used to relay audio messages that preempt all programming; as the intent of an Emergency Action Notification is to serve as a "last-ditch effort to get a message out if the [p]resident cannot get to the media", it can easily be made redundant by the immediate and constant coverage that major weather events and other newsworthy situations—such as, most prominently, the September 11 attacks in 2001—receive from television broadcasters and news channels. Following the attacks, then-FCC chairman Michael K. Powell cited "the ubiquitous media environment" as justification for not using the EAS in their immediate aftermath. Glenn Collins of The ability to narrow messages down so that only the actual area in danger is alerted is extremely helpful in preventing false warnings, which was previously a major tune-out factor. Instead of sounding for all warnings within a station's area, SAME-decoder radios now sound only for the counties for which they are programmed. When the alarm sounds, anyone with the radio knows that the danger is nearby and protective action should be taken. For this reason, the goal of the National Weather Service is that each home should have both a smoke detector and a SAME weather radio.

The EAS can only be used to relay audio messages that preempt all programming; as the intent of an Emergency Action Notification is to serve as a "last-ditch effort to get a message out if the [p]resident cannot get to the media", it can easily be made redundant by the immediate and constant coverage that major weather events and other newsworthy situations—such as, most prominently, the September 11 attacks in 2001—receive from television broadcasters and news channels. Following the attacks, then-FCC chairman Michael K. Powell cited "the ubiquitous media environment" as justification for not using the EAS in their immediate aftermath. Glenn Collins of The New York Times acknowledged these limitations, noting that "no president has ever used the current [EAS] system or its technical predecessors in the last 50 years, despite the Soviet missile crisis, a presidential assassination, the Oklahoma City bombing, major earthquakes and three recent high-alert terrorist warnings", and that using it would have actually hindered the availability of live coverage from media outlets.[41][42]

Following the tornado outbreak of March 3, 2019, Birmingham, Alabama NWS meteorologist Kevin Laws told CNN that he, personally, wished that alerts could be updated in real-time in order to

Following the tornado outbreak of March 3, 2019, Birmingham, Alabama NWS meteorologist Kevin Laws told CNN that he, personally, wished that alerts could be updated in real-time in order to reflect the unpredictable nature of weather events –noting that the storm system's unexpected change in trajectory towards Lee County resulted in only a nine-minute warning (the resulting tornado would kill 23 people).[37]

The trend of cord cutting has led to concerns that viewers' lessened use of broadcast media in favor of streaming video services would inhibit their ability to receive emergency information (notwithstanding availability of alerts on mobile phones).[37][38]

On several notable occasions, EAS equipment became the subject of hacks by outside entities due to poor security measures, including poor firewalls, and use of insecure or unchanged default passwords on encoder hardware.

  • In February 2013, several stations in Great Falls, Montana and Marquette, Michigan were breached in such a manner, relaying a hoax message warning that "dead bodies" were "rising from their graves". It was determined that the stations' equipment was poorly protected, and that the broadcasters had further neglected to change default factory logins or passwords, opting to use factory presets instead. Because of this, the FCC, FEMA, equipment manufacturers, as well as trade groups, including the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, urged broadcasters to change their passwords and to recheck their security measures.[57][58][59][60][61]
    • In a related incident, WIZM-FM in La Crosse, Wisconsin accidentally triggered the EAS on television station WKBT-DT by airing a recording of the false message during its morning show. The hosts' laughter and their following reactions was heard in the audio relayed, which was followed by regular WIZM programming which was broadcast through the Emergency Alert System until WKBT took their EAS equipment offline.[62]
  • On February 28, 2017, WZZY in Winchester, Indiana was hacked in a nearly-identical manner, playing the same "dead bodies" audio from the February 2013 incidents. The incident prompted a public response from the Randolph County Sheriff's Department clarifying that there was no actual emergency.[63][64]
  • In January 2020, Security Ledger published an investigation finding that at least 50 EAS decoders by Digital Alert Systems had not been patched for a security vulnerability (use of a shared SSH key) found by IOActive in 2013.[65]
  • On February 20, 2020, the EAS equipment of Washington-based provider Wave Broadband was hacked, causing approximately 3,000 customers in Jefferson County to receive several false alerts (including a Radiological Hazard Warning"), which contained irrelevant messages and alert audio referencing internet memes and websites (including one suggesting that the provider change its passwords).[66][67] On March 2, 2020, a legitimate Required Monthly Test was displayed with a message ("AIGHT IM DONE U CAN REST NOW. MR GERDE WAS HERE") that had also appeared in the hack: a company official stated that this was a remnant of the hack that would be addressed.[68][69]

Tone usage outside of alerts

To protect the integrity of the system, and prevent false activations, the FCC prohibits the use of actual or simulated EAS/WEA tones and attention signals outside of genuine alerts, tests, or authorized public service announcements, especially when they are used "to capture audience attention during advertisements; dramatic, entertainment, and educational programs". Broadcasters who misuse the tones may be sanctioned (including being required to partake in compliance measures) and fined.[70]

  • Tones from the EAS were used in the trailer for the 2013 film Olympus Has Fallen; cable providers were fined $1.9 million by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on March 3, 2014 for misuse of EAS tones.[71] An event similar to this previously occurred in November 2013, when TBS was fined $25,000 for the use of EAS tones in a Conan advertisement.[72]
  • During the October 24, 2014 episode of Bobby Bones' nationally-syndicated radio show, Bones played audio from the 2011 national test as part of a rant about a genuine test from Nashville's Fox affiliate, WZTV, that interrupted Game 2 of the 2014 World Series on October 22. The errant Emergency Action Notification was relayed to some broadcasters and cable systems—particularly those not configured to reject EAN messages that did not match the current date. On May 19, 2015, iHeartMedia (who distributes the show and owns its flagship station, WSIX-FM) was fined $1 million for the incident, and was ordered to implement a three-year compliance plan and remove all EAS tones or similar-sounding noises from its audio production libraries in order to avoid any further incidents.[73][74]
  • From August 4 to August 6, 2016, Tegna, Inc.-owned NBC affiliate WTLV in Jacksonville, Florida aired an ad several times during NBC's primetime coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympics produced by the marketing department of the National Football League's Jacksonville Jaguars featuring out-of-sequence EAS tones over Jaguars training camp footage and a voiceover noting "this is not a test, this is an emergency broadcast transmission...seek shelter immediately", along with the on-screen text "the storm is coming". The ad aired four times before station compliance authorities pulled the advertisement after the local news industry blog FTVLive criticized the station for carrying it, especially during the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season. FTVLive's piece would be noted by the FCC in their decision against WTLV rendered on May 30, 2017, when it was given a $55,000 fine for carrying the offending Jaguars ad.[75][76]
  • The FCC issued several fines relating to EAS tone usage in August 2019, including ABC being fined $395,000 for using wireless emergency alert tones multiple times during a To protect the integrity of the system, and prevent false activations, the FCC prohibits the use of actual or simulated EAS/WEA tones and attention signals outside of genuine alerts, tests, or authorized public service announcements, especially when they are used "to capture audience attention during advertisements; dramatic, entertainment, and educational programs". Broadcasters who misuse the tones may be sanctioned (including being required to partake in compliance measures) and fined.[70]

    • Tones from the EAS were used in the trailer for the 2013 film Olympus Has Fallen; cable providers were fined $1.9 million by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on March 3, 2014 for misuse of EAS tones.[71] An event similar to this previously occurred in November 2013, when TBS was fined $25,000 for the use of EAS tones in a Conan advertisement.[72]
    • During the October 24, 2014 episode of Bobby Bones' nationally-syndicated radio show, Bones played audio from the 2011 national test as part of a rant about a genuine test from Nashville's Fox affiliate, WZTV, that interrupted Game 2 of the 2014 World Series on October 22. The errant Emergency Action Notification was relayed to some broadcasters and cable systems—particularly those not configured to reject EAN messages that did not match the current date. On May 19, 2015, iHeartMedia (who distributes the show and owns its flagship station, WSIX-FM) was fined $1 million for the incident, and was ordered to implement a three-year compliance plan and remove all EAS tones or similar-sounding noises from its audio production libraries in order to avoid any further incidents.[73][74]
    • From August 4 to August 6, 2016, Tegna, Inc.-owned NBC affiliate WTLV in Jacksonville, Florida aired an ad several times during NBC's primetime coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympics produced by the marketing department of the National Football League's Jacksonville Jaguars featuring out-of-sequence EAS tones over Jaguars training camp footage and a voiceover noting "this is not a test, this is an emergency broadcast transmission...seek shelter immediately", along with the on-screen text "the storm is coming". The ad aired four times before station compliance authorities pulled the advertisement after the local news industry blog FTVLive criticized the station for carrying it, especially during the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season. FTVLive's piece would be noted by the FCC in their decision against WTLV rendered on May 30, 2017, when it was given a $55,000 fine for carrying the offending Jaguars ad.[75][76]
    • The FCC issued several fines relating to EAS tone usage in August 2019, including ABC being fined $395,000 for using wireless emergency alert tones multiple times during a Jimmy Kimmel Live sketch, AMC Networks being fined $104,000 for using the tones in The Walking Dead episode "Omega", Discovery Inc. being fined $68,000 for including footage of an actual WEA activation during a Lone Star Law episode filmed during