The CONELRAD Symbol, with the Civil Defense logo inside. This was placed on radios that were "Qualified to receive Emergency Notifications."

CONELRAD (Control of Electric Radiation) was a system designed for the United States to send emergency information to the American Public in the event of a nuclear exchange. It had the dual purpose of providing this information through either pre-recorded or live radio and television broadcasts, as well as reducing the likelihood of enemy bombers using the radio and television stations as beacons to home in on American cities. CONELRAD was also designated to be put in charge of sirens in all towns over the population of 50,000, or all those designated a target. With the development of Inter-continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM’s), however, the need to confuse enemy airplanes that were homing on cities with radio and television signals virtually disappeared, and the system was replaced with Emergency Broadcast Alert Service in 1962. Unlike its successor, CONELRAD was never designed to alert of extreme weather or natural disasters. This system was under the control of the Department of Communications.


Before CONELRAD was established in 1949, local and state governments had been in charge of emergency alerts to their citizens. However, many localities did not opt for this due to the cost, and only the largest cities (with the notable exception of Washington, D.C., due to its role as a federal city with a very restricted local government) could afford to implement such system, as well as the reluctance of radio stations to participate. The invasion of the United States by the Confederacy in 1942, and the subsequent chaos in the effected states which had not received warning beforehand gave the federal government the push it needed to take over nationwide emergency services. It wasn't until 1947 after the war however, for the US Congress and President George C. Marshall to make it a priority to build a federal warning system, especially over fears of French, Brazilian and Japanese nuclear armed bombers, many of which were positioned within hours of major cities in Quebec, the Gulf States Confederation and Mexico.

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CONELRAD poster to show which stations the radio should be turned to in case of attack.

The Department of Communication was placed in charge of the new system, and set out to name determine which stations would be placed on the "CONELRAD Notification List." Divided into three parts, the Notification List detailed that stations at Tier I would be the first to receive the signal from the Department of Defense, which would receive warning from a chain of radar stations throughout the world (at least four had to detect the launch of missiles in order for the signal to be sent) and would then initiate the warning. Tier II, once having received the signal from their Tier I station, would then initiate the warning. Once the Tier III stations received the warning from Tier II, they would then initiate the warning. From the Department of Defense receiving the first reports of hostile threats approaching America to the Tier III station finishing sending its warning to the people in its area, it should have taken 2.5 minutes, presumably taking at least 30 seconds for the minimum four radars to report in, then 30 more seconds for each step from the Department of Defense to Tier I to Tier II to Tier III. It was estimated that almost 85 to 90% if America could be alerted to the threat of a nuclear attack in less than 5 minutes, though through testing the system, it was more likely between 5 and 15 minutes for most of the US to hear the warning.

The first test of the service took place on March 5, 1949, and despite prior warnings and disclaimers, there was still a major panic in many places, especially in smaller towns that had never had an alert before. By September 1950, the system was considered fully operational, and a weekly test, usually at 7:00 PM on Friday in each time zone of the United States was conducted. This was designed so that the vast majority of people listening or watching would be around to hear the test, and to be reminded of what would happen in an actual attack. A disclaimer would be presented, then the test (detailed below) would be performed. Sometimes during the test the transmitters, unable to cope with being rapidly turned on and off and on again, would fail. This was later informally called the CONELRAD Test, and even to this day a sudden failure of transmission would be so called. The tests continued up until the advent of the Emergency Broadcast Alert System, and until 1969 when the current test was established.

Test Message

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A recreated CONELRAD test slide from 1954, WJNY NBC New York City

Once a week, usually at 7:00 PM on Friday in each time zone, every Tier I station would receive a "test warning" from the Department of Defense, and would then initiate the testing sequence. During testing, a message would be displayed on a television screen warning of a CONELRAD test, with the logo of the service being displayed and a pre-recorded message would be played:

"As requested by the United States Government and [insert state] Civil Defense Board, all required radio and television stations will now test the CONELRAD Emergency Notification System over the next thirty seconds. Remember, this is only a test."

The station would then turn of the transmitter for five seconds, then turn back on for five second, and turn off again for five seconds, and once returning to air, transmitting a tone at 1000 Hz for 15 seconds. The tone was designed to alert the next station on on the CONELRAD Notification List to then broadcast its signal, as well all persons who may have missed the original message.

After transmitting the tone, another pre-recorded message was issued:

"This was a test of the CONELRAD Emergency Notification System. This system was designed by the United States Government, and the [insert state] Civil Defense Board. If this was an actual emergency, you would have been advised to evacuate to a fallout shelter with provisions and a battery operated radio, and advised to turn to 640 kHz or 1240 kHz as marked on most radios, for further information including that from the President of the United States or his authorized representative, as this station would now cease transmission. CONELRAD is a joint undertaking between the Department of Defense, the Department of Communication, [insert state] Civil Defense Board and all Radio and Television stations of the United States of America. This concludes the test of the CONELRAD Emergency Notification System."

Attack Message

In the case of an actual threat of attack, sirens would be activated to issue a "Nuclear Attack" warning: a long, steady pulse for 10 seconds, a break for five seconds, then repeating the long, steady pulse for another 10 seconds. This would be repeated at least five times. Television and radio stations would be required to break into programming, and issue this statement:

"This is the CONELRAD Emergency Notification System. The United States Department of Defense has detected multiple hostile threats are inbound on the United States. All persons are requested to evacuate to a fallout shelter or a safe place in your home with a battery operated radio and enough provisions to last for at least 14 days. When safely in a fallout shelter, turn your radio to 640 kHz or 1240 kHz as marked on most radios for further information including that from the President of the United States or his authorized representative, as this station will soon cease transmission."

The CONELRAD Test would again be performed, turning the transmitter off for five seconds, on for five seconds, off for five seconds, and on again to transmit a tone at 1000 Hz for 15 seconds. Another message would then be played:

"Again, this is the CONELRAD Emergency Notification System, warning that the Department of Defense has detected multiple hostile threats inbound on the United States. This station will now cease transmission, and you are requested to evacuate to a fallout shelter with a battery operated radio and provisions to last for 14 days, and turn to 640 AM or 1240 AM marked on most radios to receive further information including that from the President of the United States or his authorized representative, as this station will now cease transmission. "

Post-Attack Message

Most television and radio stations would after that be turned off, and all stations on the 640 AM and 1240 AM would be transferred to direct operations under the states Civil Defense Board (although many of these stations were still actual "public" stations controlled by the states, partially for such an emergency). An address by the President or a representative would follow, detailing what is known about the subsequent attacks. After this, another pre-recorded message would be played:

"This is the CONELRAD Emergency Notification System. The United States of America has been attacked with nuclear weapons. Communications have been disrupted and casualties will be extremely high. If you are in your house or a fallout shelter, please remain in there, as trying to escape can expose yourself to greater danger due to nuclear fallout, which is many times more deadly outside of shelter, and a house or fallout shelter can protect you from lethal doses of fallout. Although you cannot see it or feel it, it is there, and it can kill you. Nuclear fallout will decay exponentially, and most areas suffering fallout will start becoming safe anywhere from 14 days to 42 days after the attack. Until this time however, it is recommended that you stay in your shelter. This station will notify you if radiation and fallout levels have dropped enough to safely leave your shelter or home.

"All gas and fires should be extinguished, and water can be used to put fires out. After all fires are out, refill all containers for drinking and cooking purposes. Do not waste water, as water is life. Water should only be used for drinking and cooking purposes. Water mains will most likely be broken or dry after an attack, so please make your water last, which includes not flushing toilets. Food must also be preserved, as you only have a limited supply. Use fresh food first so as to not waste it, for canned food will keep longer. If you must absolutely leave your shelter to replenish food or water, do not stay out longer than necessary.

"When fallout has dropped and it is safe to come out, a long siren will sound, and will continue sounding for at least a minute. This station will also let you know if it is safe to come out, so please tune back into this station to confirm that it is indeed clear to evacuate your shelter. If you leave before the all clear sounds, then you can be exposed to lethal amounts of fallout, which can kill you and your family.

"To repeat: turn off and put out all gas and fires, preserve and ration food and water, do not flush toilets, stay in your shelter or home, do not go outside unless absolutely necessary and stay in your shelter or home until the all clear siren and this station confirms it safe to leave. This station will continue to broadcast this message every hour, on the hour, but you should turn off your radio to save your batteries. Important messages will be given every hour, on the hour, but no other broadcasting will take place. This is the end of this broadcast of the CONELRAD Emergency Notification System. Please turn off your radios now to save batteries."

Cultural Impact

The Tri-Powers Conflict and the threat of nuclear war in the late 1940s and through the 1950s predominated the culture of this era, and the CONELRAD (later EBAS) system has become the focus of many of the fears and cultural understanding of the time. When the prerecorded messages that were to be played during and after an attack were released in 1974, the so-called "the words of doom," of New York State which were recorded by popular news man Walter Cronkite became haunting and chilling, especially when it was known that this would be the last things millions could possibly hear. Cronkite himself said that after recording the messages in the studio, he left the recording booth, took three steps, and broke down as he realized what he had done. When the new EBAS system was implemented, and the use of pre-recorded messages were, for the most part, scrapped, Cronkite was offered the chance to record the few messages that the new system would use, but he declined.

Movies and songs touching on the early Tri-Powers Conflict featured the test messages, and the apocalyptic film Sunrise in the West (1974) extensively featured the CONELRAD emergency alerts.

However, when the prerecorded messages were released, many scientists and citizens claimed that the information that the messages would have given the public in case of a nuclear war was "hopelessly insufficient and dangerous," giving the American people the belief that surviving the attacks would not be much more than like a Natso Air raid in the Third Global War. Civil Defense spokespeople claimed that the information was given, not to misinform the populace, but to reassure those that survived the strikes that they could survive. However, this argument lead to more serious, and accurate EBAS warnings in the case of a nuclear war being devised and prepared.

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