EAS 375

One year after the pandemic sidelined the now-annual national test of the Emergency Alert System, the Federal Emergency Management Agency expects to return to form this summer. Sources say FEMA is tentatively planning to conduct the national EAS test on Wednesday, Aug. 11 with a backup date of Wednesday, Aug. 25 to be used if any unforeseen circumstances – such as a hurricane – requires a two-week delay.

Insiders say FEMA is planning to conduct a national test similar to what was done in 2019. Two years ago, the government leaned on broadcasters and the daisy-chain system for distributing messages during a national emergency. It will also be a gauge of whether federal efforts to beef up PEP stations – the network of 77 mostly AM stations that have a direct connection to FEMA and act as a primary broadcast source for national EAS messages – have improved the reliability of the system. Unlike the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), the PEP system does not rely on internet delivery. The addition of new stations has improved PEP’s direct coverage from 67% of the U.S. population in 2009 to more than 90% today.

Yet it doesn’t mean all goes as planned. During the 2019 test FEMA reported that of 77 primary stations, a dozen experienced technical issues receiving and retransmitting the alert on the test day.

FEMA also plans to put the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system to the test this year. Tentative plans call for a simultaneous national test of WEA alongside EAS. The test messages would only appear on those wireless handsets where the user has manually opted-in to receive WEA test messages. The national Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) capability was most recently tested in conjunction with the EAS in 2018.

The Federal Communications Commission issued its final report on the 2019 national test last May. “A final analysis of the test finds that a large majority of the EAS participants successfully received the national periodic test code,” the report says, concluding, “The nationwide broadcast-based EAS distribution system would largely perform as designed, if activated without the availability of the internet.” But a joint analysis by FEMA and the FCC said the test also shed light on “challenges” that continue to hamper the ability of some EAS participants to receive or transmit the alert, including sound quality of the message relayed.

Once this year’s date is finalized, the FCC is expected to once again require stations to submit a series of reports before and after the national test is conducted. That data helps the government determine whether problems are tied to specific EAS encoders and receivers or if certain geographies do not have adequate PEP station coverage.

The 2021 test will be the sixth national test of EAS in the past decade. The first was conducted in November 2011, and then in September 2016 and 2017, and October 2018, and August 2019. Last year’s test was called off as FEMA blamed the pandemic and the “unusual circumstances and working conditions” faced by many broadcasters and cable operators.