The Morning File / Fellow Americans: It's the Emergency Alert System (Don't freak!)

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A program will be broadcast on television and radio Wednesday afternoon that you just can't miss.

Airing at 2 p.m., it will be one of the most-seen, best-heard events in broadcast history, right up there with the end of "M*A*S*H" and that phony moon landing back in the summer of 1969. If you are anywhere near a TV or radio, you will have no choice but to be part of the audience.

This "it" moment uniting us like Eyes and Ears But Not Hands Across America is -- dramatic pause here -- the first nationally synchronized test of the Emergency Alert System. (What, you were expecting maybe O.J. taking another closely monitored spin in an SUV?)

The EAS, known as the Emergency Broadcast System when we were all younger, has only been tested and used on a local basis up to now. But this week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Federal Communications Commission intend to find out how well it might work if it were actually needed for an impromptu presidential address as we're being overrun by alien invaders, zombies or -- gasp! -- immigrants.

Damon Penn, whose title as FEMA assistant administrator of national continuity programs lends reassurance that we do in fact continue to be a nation, says Wednesday's run-through "is a step towards ensuring that the alert and warning community is prepared to deliver critical information that can help save lives and protect property."

So you'll spend three minutes at 2 p.m., viewing some kind of "This is a test" message, whether you are a child watching "The Garfield Show" on Cartoon Network, a young adult slacker spending the afternoon viewing "I Used to be Fat" on MTV or an old fogy watching "Bonanza" on TV Land.

Maybe some of that additional verbiage we're used to hearing will also be aired, like, "This is only a test. If this had been a real emergency blah blah blah." If you're like us, you tune all the ensuing stuff out, as though it were pre-flight instructions from airline attendants.

We're actually pretty sure that no matter how many cautions are issued about the nature of the test, someone somewhere's going to freak out like during the "War of the Worlds" radio program and imagine some cataclysm is upon us.

The call to a 911 dispatcher from an older woman in Clayton, Iowa, will go something like, "What's going on? Are the Russians coming? Is it OK to shoot on sight anyone approaching the front door, or should I ask questions first?"



As a test, it would probably be more useful if we actually did it unannounced and with some pretense of a true national emergency. We all remember in school how unnaturally smoothly the fire drills went when the teachers instructed us beforehand, "Now, kids, there's going to be a fire drill today. We want you to march carefully in single file as you leave the building, just as we're sure you would if the flames were licking at your little tushes as you slowly walked."

So what would be wrong Wednesday with trotting out some presidential impersonator for a short little message like:

"The United States is under invasion from stink bugs, who have acquired special adaptive powers. They no longer sit patiently waiting for you to kill them. When squeezing in our windows now, it's actually to attempt to kill us! You should evacuate to your nearest fallout shelter. You do know where that is, don't you? Wait, what?"

Then FEMA and the FCC could more accurately assess how widely and quickly the message got out and whether the highway and transportation system was up to the task of handling the sudden, heavy traffic.

The intriguing truth is that the federal government has never once implemented the Emergency Broadcast System or Emergency Alert System -- not for President Kennedy's assassination, not for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, not for the Steelers' two Super Bowl losses, nor for anything equally important.

The chairman of the EAS National Advisory Committee explained after Sept. 11 that the immediate live media coverage of the plane hijackings was so pervasive there was no need for an official national alert. But that leaves the question of just when it will ever be used, and what purpose is served this Wednesday in inconveniencing the tens of millions of viewers turning to CMT at 2 p.m. to watch "Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team."

Our guess is it will be activated when the zombies actually do walk the Earth. But by then, my friends, I am afraid it will be too late.


Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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