The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will conduct the first nationwide test of the emergency alert system (EAS) on Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 2 p.m. EST. Damon Penn, assistant administrator of FEMA’s National Continuity Programs Directorate, joined Urgent Communications to discuss the alert and how first-responder leadership can ensure their community is prepared for an emergency.

What are the goals and purpose of this test?
The real object of the test is to do the first, end-to-end test of the emergency alert system. The system came about in the early '50s as part of our preparation for Cold War. But it’s been extended in the current times to give the president an opportunity to communicate to the American public when he needs to under all conditions. We’ve never done an end-to-end test, so our real objective is to test the system throughout and make sure we know what parts are functional — and work as advertised — and which may need additional attention as we go forward. It’s not really a pass-fail test but to make sure it performs as advertised.

On which communication mediums will the test be broadcasted and what will the message look like?
The alert will go over the radio and television, and that is part of a larger program — the integrated public alert and warning system. This is the emergency alert part. It will look like very much like the monthly alerts now. Those are tests that the stations are required to conduct that interrupts with a series of tones and then says, “This a test of the emergency alert system.” The difference may be that the banner looks different compared to what you are used to seeing from the local alert, based on the national level message versus the local message. So if you are used to finding a scroll across the top of your TV, you may this time see a scroll across the bottom. If you are used to seeing something in red it may be in blue. But basically it will look much like what you are used to.

How will the test be measured?
We will have a series of evaluators throughout the country to monitor individual stations and monitor the networks. Also, each of the stations will have a monitoring capability built in; their engineers will be on hand in case there are any problems where they need to connect or disconnect their systems, etc. Once that is completed, we will collect all of the information, determine what types of systemic problems we have, and what kind of corrections we need to make. It also gives local broadcasters a chance to see if there are any internal issues they need to address about the way their equipment is installed, the way their equipment handled the test or whether it gave them the results they expected.

How can first-responder leadership educate their teams and their communities about the alert system and other disaster survival skills?
That’s to continue to do what they do best, to remind the public that all alerts are important and that this is a test of a large system that we’ve had in place for some time. And also, ask them to reassure everyone that the test is scheduled … and if they see the banner they should know this is a test and not actual emergency in the area.