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Three generations of emergency communications

Even before CONELRAD was introduced in 1951, radio broadcasting was a critical part of the emergency communications infrastructure.  The government recognized early on the ability of radio to transmit data and information quickly, over large areas to the general public.  It works when all other systems fail, as demonstrated repeatedly over the years, the last of which occurred during Hurricane Sandy last October.  Massive destruction from flooding in lower Manhattan and shore side Brooklyn rendered the electrical grid, telephone network, the cellular network and the internet out of order.  Fortunately, enough radio stations stayed on the air and people used battery powered AM and FM receivers to obtain information.

CONELRAD poster, circa 1950's

CONELRAD poster, circa 1950′s

CONELRAD served two purposes; first, radio stations either re-tuned their transmitters to 640 or 1240 KHz or switched off the air. Then, each station that was still on the air would transmit for ten minutes, after which, they turned off and the next station in the chain would turn on and transmit for ten minutes. This was designed to confuse the Soviet bombers flying over the north pole on their way to incinerate us. Secondly, the CONELRAD stations were to distribute emergency information during and after said attack.

CONELRAD receiver

CONELRAD receiver

Recently, I found this CONELRAD receiver in a bomb shelter at a radio station. It dates to pre 1963, which is when CONELRAD was replaced by EBS.

EBS encoder/decoder

EBS encoder/decoder

EBS or the Emergency Broadcast System was a refinement of CONELRAD in several areas.  EBS used a two tone attention signal to unmute receivers and alert the public that something important may be happening.  Initially designed as a national system to warn of an impending attack, in later years it was also used by state and local governments to warn of other emergencies like weather, etc.

The current system is EAS or Emergency Alert System.

CAP compliant EAS

CAP compliant EAS

The Emergency Alert System was an advancement of the EBS in several areas.  Using SAME protocol in the message headers allowed stations to automate alert message relays.  This was driven by the desire for unattended operation.  The use of SAME also allowed many different types of messages to be filtered by alert type and area.  Each EAS unit also had an internal voice recorder.  All of this was upgraded in 2011 with the introduction of CAP, which would take email messages and generate computer voice alerts to be sent out over the broadcast stations.

Three generations of emergency communications equipment found at one facility.

The main problem with EAS CAP is it violates the engineering principle of KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid).  It is an overly complicated system that relies on the internet, e-mail servers, the public telephone system and other infrastructure that may not survive natural or man made disasters, enemy attack or other disruptions.  Even something as simple as a national test proved to be problematic in 2011.

For a real emergency information network, the idea of WGU-20 has some merit.  Two or more well positioned medium to high powered LF stations could serve as a PEP distribution network and reliably cover the entire country.  With such a system, every broadcast station, cable head end and NOAA radio transmitter could monitor the LF stations directly, thus replacing most of the over the air daisy chain and or FEMA leased lines.  The advantages of LF is that it is fairly immune to HEMP, it goes a long way reliably, can have multiple redundant transmitter sites located within secure areas like military bases and uses time proven technology.  That would be a real, cold war solution.  But no, let us instead rely on a hodge podge of ISPs, TELCO leased lines, 3/4G wireless networks, SMS, satellite links, e-mail servers and the like, because: Hey!  It’s the digital age, we don’t need none of that stinking broadcasting crap.

EAS CAP deadline approaching, some things to keep in mind

There is something like two weeks left until the deadline for installing CAP compliant EAS equipment.  No, this time they really mean it!

Anyway…

I have installed a few of the new SAGE ENDEC boxes at various clients. They do have one common problem; audio input levels. The newer blue faced SAGE units are much more sensitive than the older units. The existing audio input levels connected to older EAS units need to be adjusted downward nearly 100% of the time.  SAGE Alerting Systems has a bulletin about it: SAGE Alerting Systems Audio Levels.

In addition to that, SAGE Alerting Systems has released CAP compliant firmware, available at: Updates for digital SAGE ENDEC

 

EAS text to speech permitted, not required

The FCC reverses it’s former position on EAS text to speech, permitting stations to begin using it today (May 7, 2012).  The FCC’s main issue with Text To Speech (TTS) was that it may  not render the text accurately enough to be understood, especially in emergencies.  This can lead to confusing messages and defeat the purpose of EAS altogether.

I have played around with some text to speech software and indeed it can mangle words, mispronounce punctuation as a part of the sentence structure, mumble, etc.  Further, as I have said before, listening to some robo voice is very impersonal.  But, I suppose that is the point, isn’t it; some big government agency computers generating messages that no one person is really responsible for.  Bureaucratic paradise.

National EAS test results

Mixed, at least in my neck of the woods.  I was stationed at a LP-1 station which was monitoring a PEP station directly.  On my end, the test went fine without intervention. Please excuse the cellphone video, I am used to my good camera, which I left at home.

Many others in the New York area had problems.  Stations with newer SAGE (Blue front) CAP capable EAS ENDECS had issues, even the ones that were also monitoring the PEP stations directly.

Many of those stations broadcast the header tones and about 10 seconds of audio.  The audio abruptly stops and is followed by twenty seconds of dead air followed by the EOM.  I can speculate that the SAGE EAS units should be checked for proper configuration and be tested back to back while receiving duplicate messages from different sources spaced apart by ten seconds.

Several stations downstream from the LP-1 stations did not receive anything at all.  Others received the alert tones but no audio, some had high levels of background noise, thirty seconds of static, audio cut off, etc.  All in all, most would look at this and say “Thank God it wasn’t a real emergency.”  Silver lining: For all those that are concerned that the federal government will attempt to diabolically take over the entire broadcast spectrum and say evil things; Doh! foiled again.

FEMA shortens EAS test to 30 seconds

FEMA has reduced the audio portion of the national EAS test scheduled for 2pm on 11/9/11 from over two minutes to thirty seconds.  This should make the overall time of the test between 45 and 60 seconds, including header and EOM tones.

The change comes directly from the top of Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano.  No reasons given.  New PSA’s and other information is being prepared for stations to use when informing the public.

 

National EAS Test

Video available by youtube, courtesy of Radio Magazine:

It is a pretty good simulation of what will happen on November 9th.   The script used is not the actual script that will be used for the national test.

After the test, the video shows how to bail out of the national test in the event that a valid EAN is not received.  This is important information, as this particular failure has occurred many times in the past.  If the LP-1 or PEP station that transmitted the test fails to send a valid EOM, the EAS unit will continue to transmit that station’s programming indefinitely.  If the LP-1 or PEP station resumes regular programming while the EAS unit is relaying their programming over the air, that would be a good indication that the LP-1 or PEP station has failed to send a valid EOM.

Update: Paper work is required.

Less than one month until the Coordinated National EAS test

November 9, 2011 at 2pm EST, FEMA will be testing EAS with it’s first ever national level test.  To promote that event, they have released a twenty eight page “tool kit,” (near the bottom of the page) designed to help everyone get through the test.  It should be interesting.  According to FEMA:

The nationwide EAS Test is not a pass or fail measure, nor will it specifically test Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) compliant equipment (although CAP compliant equipment should pass the Emergency Action Notification [EAN] live-code in the same manner as legacy EAS equipment).

They will release a Emergency Action Notification (EAN) to all the Primary Entry Point (PEP) stations, which should then flow down stream through all the radio, television, cable systems, and direct broadcast satellite systems.  The test should last about two minutes and will conclude with a standard EOM.

I doubt very much it will sound like this:

That is WHEN, Syracuse, NY singing EBS test.  A bit of originality there. WHEN played this for their weekly EBS test for the better part of the 70′s.  Naturally, the FCC found out about it and told them to stop.  Shame, really, it is kind of catchy.

If you have some spare time, download the tool kit and study up for the test.

CAP deadline looms large

Six weeks to go and time is moving fast. Many stations of a particular group have not done the required CAP upgrades to their EAS equipment. I’d imagine that we will be running around installing and programming these things at the last moment.

A list of certified EAS equipment vendors is available from the FCC website.  The new FCC website, which seems to be dedicated to bringing broadband to America, somewhat at the expense of everything else.  More about that later.

About CAP and EAS; I hope the effort and expense is worth it.  Those CAP converters and CAP compliant EAS machines are not cheap.  I would think that after all that mandated spending, the new, new EAS works better than the old new EAS which left quite a bit to be desired.  I am still skeptical of the internet based distribution system, as the internet has proven to be less than 100% reliable in all locations.  The method seems to violate the KISS principle, of which I am a firm believer.  In any case, I will reserve judgement until after the nation wide test on November 9, 2011.

Regarding that test, I have already read some “expectations management” statements from FEMA and the FCC.  I have to say, if, given a years notice to install the equipment and do local testing before the big test, the new system does not show great improvements over the old EAS, it is time to scrap EAS altogether.  It would be far better to tell the public they are on their own and recommend buying NOAA weather radios or rather NOAA All Hazards radios to receive their emergency information on.   Supplement that with an e-mail notification system like NY Alert, which I use for urgent traffic and weather information and be done with it.  This way, at least, nobody will be expecting the nearest automated station from the borg collective to supply meaningful, up to date information.

The Nationwide Coordinated EAS test

This is a test, you have been warned.  The FCC has scheduled the first nationwide mandatory EAS test for November 9th, 2011 at 2pm EST (1900 UTC).  According to James A. Barnett, Jr., Chief, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau:

For the test, FEMA will trigger the EAS “cascade” architecture by transmitting the EAS code used for national level emergencies to the first level of broadcast stations in the national-level of the EAS, which in turn will rebroadcast the alert to the general public, as well as to the next level of EAS participants monitoring them. This should continue through all levels of the system until the alert has been distributed throughout the entire county.

Since this date is beyond the CAP deadline of September 30, 2011, it seems like CAP would be the distribution method, but there is not anything I can find to verify that.  The above paragraph makes it sound like the PEP system might be used.

This will be an interesting evolution for a number of reasons.  If the EAS system fails operate as planned after giving five months warning for a nationwide test, it would point toward a fundamental design flaw in the system.  A more realistic test of the EAS system would involve perhaps one hours notice and then trigger the event.  Notice should be given so that broadcast station personal can answer questions from the listening and viewing public.

Then there is the EAS  EAN protocol itself.  There are many that feel, rightly or wrongly, that the federal government should not be able to take control of privately owned broadcast stations and cable systems for any reason.  The way that the EAS encoder/decoder units are now required to be wired into the audio air chain means it would be very hard to override any mandatory alert, such as an EAN, if there were a reason to do that.  There have been several instances of false alerts, WGN-AM being the most recent, where programming on down stream broadcast and cable systems were disrupted for several minutes.

So, save the date.  It will no doubt be interesting to see how this all works.

EAS/CAP continued

Lots of ink has been spilled about the new CAP (Common Alert Protocol) implementation and what it all means.  Since the FCC started the six month CAP clock ticking on September 30th of last year, they have extended the deadline by six months to September 30, 2011.

The idea of upgrading EAS is a good one.  When EAS replaced EBS in 1997 it was supposed to do away with the over the air relay system also known as the daisy chain.  This was left over from the 1960′s CONELRAD system implemented by Kennedy.  That replacement never occurred and stations today are still monitoring other broadcasting stations for their EAS alerts.  The daisy chain was and still is the source of all EBS and EAS failures.

CAP is supposed to eliminate that weak link by allowing the EAS unit to access government IPAWS message servers directly, allowing FEMA to automatically send out alert messages to designated areas.  This has some libertarians in an uproar, as they see government intrusion and taking over privately owned radio stations to broadcast emergency information as a form of tyranny.   In as much as the definition of “emergency message” has not been codified by FEMA in any of their information, they may have a point.  In the past, the general definition of emergency communications were those that were pertaining to imminent threats to the safety of life and property.  According to Executive Order 13407, Public Alert and Warning System, the purpose is to:

…have an effective, reliable, integrated, flexible, and comprehensive system to alert and warn the American people in situations of war, terrorist attack, natural disaster, or other hazards to public safety and well-being…

Which is certainly much  more broad in scope.  How does one define a hazard to “well-being?”

SAGE alerting systems have completely revamped their ENDEC to include CAP 1.2.  It uses the internet to connect to IPAWS servers and receive CAP messages.  As the SAGE ENDEC owners manual notes, participation in local and state level alerts are at the discretion of the station management, as regulated by the current version of FCC Part 11.  National level participation is manditory:

Participation at the national level is mandatory for most broadcasters.  You may petition the FCC to become a “Non Participating National” station, but you must still receive and broadcast the EAN code, and then leave the air.  These requirements are always evolving, refer to the FCC rules, in particular CFR 47 Part 11 for details.

Often times, it is the local emergencies that are greatest and most immediate threats to human life; the tornado, the tsunami, etc.  Those are the most pressing threats, not the national level alerts, which were implemented  in the 1960′s to warn of a major attack from a foreign country, something not very likely these days.

SAGE ENDEC

SAGE ENDEC

Further, the internet has proved to be less than reliable when trouble occurs.  During the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, dial tone, cellphone and internet service for much of lower Manhattan were disrupted because the TELCO facilities were in the buildings that were destroyed.  Most internet services rely on wired or fiber optic services provided by TELCO or cable company, which can be effected by power outages, damaged infrastructure and so on, which would likely occur in a major emergency.

It does not seem to be the most robust method for distribution of emergency messages.

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