At 2 o’clock Wednesday afternoon, no matter what you’re watching, no matter what you’re listening to, expect it to vanish.
It’ll be replaced for up about 30 seconds by the first-ever nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System.
You’ve seen local tests of the system before. You know the catchphrase. “This is only a test,” a faceless announcer would sometimes say after a long beeeeeeeeep tone.
But what if the whole thing’s broken?
The Emergency Alert System or “EAS” gets used a lot for local announcements, especially weather. But the President also has the power to crank it up nationwide.
But ever since the system was cooked up under President Truman — 60 years ago — it’s never been used to talk to the whole country at once.
Not when Kennedy was assassinated. Not at any time during the Cold War. Not on September 11th, 2001.
A top official later explained. He said the nationwide EAS system is designed as a backup way for the U.S. government to reach the American people. But during those events, the radio and TV networks were already doing that — and doing it well.
Imagine if the White House had interrupted live images of the World Trade Center and Pentagon with an audio message and a few sentences of text scrolling across an otherwise blank screen.
The EAS has “never been used on a nationwide basis, even though it was set up to alert residents of a Soviet attack,” said Pinellas Emergency Management’s Tom Iovino.
So, the nationwide system may be getting rusty. FEMA has decided it’s time for a test. When a nationwide alert is sent, will everyone get it? We’ll find out Wednesday afternoon at 2 o’clock Eastern.
The alert will air on every radio station, broadcast TV channel, cable system, and satellite system at the same time.
“If you’ve ever seen one of the regional tests that are done by individual stations, it’s gonna look identical to it. Except, every station you go to will have it at the same time,” Iovino said.
“So you’ll hear the familiar warning tone, and there will be information up on the screen and TV about this being a test of the Emergency Alert System.”
An EAS for smartphones is being developed right now. Once it’s up and running, government agencies could flash messages on the screen about major disasters or terror attacks.
The EAS can transmit more than 50 different emergency codes, ranging from a nearby dam break to an outage of local 911 phone lines.
“The system can be used for anything — nationwide crisis, it could be a weather thing, it could be a terrorist thing,” Iovino said.
But on Wednesday, November 9th, at 2 p.m. remember, it is only a test.