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Hey Area: What is the Emergency Alert System testing?

Christine Nguyen
Cold War radio with Civil Defense presets for AM 640 and 1240

You ask, we answer.

One listener wanted to know, “What is this ‘test of the emergency system we hear now and then on the air?” Reporter Christine Nguyen has the answer.

Credit Christine Nguyen / KALW News
The blue box meant to save us all

  “It’s just a nondescript blue panel of metal and a little crystal display and a few buttons,” says Kevin Vance, longtime morning radio announcer and board operator at KALW.

He’s talking about the Emergency Alert System, or EAS control panel. The EAS is a national public warning system that can deliver messages from the president and state and local authorities.


“The usual functions of the box are to send out the attention signals that say the Emergency Alert System is in effect.”

You’ve heard it before—those 3 long and grating rattles, the 3 shorter bursts, and then that tone. The one that makes you think you might go deaf. It’s a pretty annoying sound.

The idea for an integrated national disaster alert all started with the atom bomb.

“The first version of the Emergency Broadcast System was CONELRAD. This was the 1950s and America was afraid of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union,” explains Kevin Vance.

The US invented CONELRAD to warn the public in case of a bombing. Radios made from 1953 to 1963 were required to have triangles marking the civil defense frequencies of AM 640 and 1240. Eventually, CONELRAD turned into the EAS. These days the EAS is just one part of a more comprehensive warning system that also includes cellular systems, cable, satellite, and internet.

The FCC requires all broadcast stations to test the EAS weekly and monthly. The tests make sure radio and TV stations can all give the same information simultaneously in case of an emergency.

But in today’s world of Twitter, texting, and messaging apps, do we still need a radio and TV test? Kevin Vance says we do.

“People still depend on radio. There are a lot of people who don’t have computers. It’s not a perfect system but it is a way of making sure people are all on the same page.

So if the EAS sound really bugs you, it’s supposed to. And when you hear it, pay attention—something big might be about to happen.

Click the audio player above to hear more.

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