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Established in 1962 after the former CONELRAD system was deemed of no further use due to new ballistic missiles, the United States government under President Curtis LeMay announced in late 1961 after the Scottish-Quebec Missile Crisis showed some of the failings of the system, especially when jittery Department of Defense radar operators nearly assumed almost everything on their radar's were incoming bombers or missiles. The new system was also supposed to be able to quickly warn the public of other emergencies, including of floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and other natural disasters, as well as other non-war, non-nuclear events that were still serious enough to require a warning, but CONELRAD had not been designed for.
By early 1962, the basis for the Emergency Broadcast Alert System was in place. Although the old "CONELRAD Test" was still the best way to alert other stations of potential emergencies, a new system was developed in 1969 when the threat of bombers dropping nuclear bombs was considered insignificant when ICBM's and other missiles could already home in on coordinates and not on radio or TV stations. This new test is detailed below.
By 1989, new computer systems had been developed which eliminated the need to even have a human broadcast these messages and allowed an almost entirely automated process. Incorporating the new "Disaster Charlie" automated voice into the EBAS took two years, but now the Department of Defense, the Department of Communication, the United States Meteorological Service, local state Civil Defense Boards and even the towns and cities themselves were able to issue EBAS warnings with a standardized, calm voice. Fifty six radio, TV, cable and satellite radio stations across the United States and the Confederate States are the "Principal Alert Station" (PAS), and usually have access to the most powerful transmitter for their area. They also have back up generators and much of their equipment had been specially protected from an electromagnetic pulse to allow them to continue broadcasting. These would be the first stations to go on air in the event of an emergency, and the last to cease emergency broadcasting.
The most serious test for the EBAS took place during the Crisis of 1991, when the threat of nuclear war seemed so close. In several areas, the Civil Defense boards and many cities actually did activate the EBAS warning to evacuate major population centres, but as the "Disaster Charlie" was still relatively new, many of the messages failed to get through to the designated radio and television stations, or instead resulting in white noise and most notably in Kansas City and Indianapolis when Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up played instead of the warning, launching the future internet meme. The crisis was averted, but a major overhaul of EBAS was needed. New equipment provided by the Department of Communication was installed, and a streamlining of the process was put in place.
In 1995, as it was becoming clear that TV and radio was not as important as it was before, it was decided to allow for new technologies to be implemented. The next year saw the new "Electronic Mailing EBAS" being created, with all those interested to sign up. However, due to lack of interest mostly due to the requirement that people have to sign up to receive the alert, along with technical issues such as the alerts being classified as junk mail or lost amongst a person's other email, the Electronic Mailing EBAS was discontinued in 2003. In the "Public Safety Warning Act" of 2005, the new medium of text messaging on cell phones was brought up, and all devices after 2008 had to have a special receiver to pick up EBAS warnings of the area that the phone is located in, whether the person uses text messages or not. The new text message system was tested almost immediately when Tornado Ally suffered the worst season for tornado's in decades in 2008, and the service was credited with saving countless lives despite a few bugs. All modern cell phones and smart phones sold in the US has the "EBAS Chip," and it's a felony to remove the chip then sell the phone, but not for the owner of the phone to remove it themselves, but it has led to issues where the phones were unusable after the EBAS Chip was removed due to being hardwired in the system.
EBAS is currently a multi-department undertaking. Like its predecessor CONELRAD, the EBAS is under the direct control of the Department of Communications, but the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the Federal Office of Civil Defense, and the United States Meteorological Service all have authority to activate the system. It's been considered unwieldy to have so many individual branches focusing on one system, but efforts to streamline the service have not been considered important over the years.
Over the years the EBAS has undergone overhauls and standardization, along with constantly updating equipment as old equipment was replaced. The original CONELRAD Notification List and the Tiered Warning System had been retired in the late 1960s, and with specially designed electronic equipment, all radio, TV and cable stations have direct access to the EBAS system. But in one leftover from the CONELRAD system, the standardized national tests on TV and radio were still conducted at 7:00 PM on each Friday of the month and in each time zone to show people what to expect if the EBAS was activated. All channels were required to run this minute long test, and those that failed to do so would be fined and, in the case of multiple failures, would actually have their license revoked. Most of the messages were no longer pre-recorded, as the sheer number of potential outcomes would make pre-recording them all time consuming, as well as the possibility of accidentally relaying the wrong message which could cause panic, as happened at least 28 times between 1972 and 1992. Due to changes in technology, after 2004, the weekly test was never publicly broadcast on the air, as it was simply used to confirm that communications with the Department of Communications and the individual stations had not been broken. A Monthly Test of the EBAS, which occurs on the Second Tuesday of every month, is broadcast on air. An Annual Drill, usually held on the second Tuesday of October, is held around the US, in conjunction with "Civil Defense Week." This is reminiscent of the CONELRAD annual drills done from 1956 until 1962, but it was only restarted in 1993 after the Crisis of 1991.
Warning MessagesDue to the new wide range of emergencies the system is now designed to handle, a simplified warning system was developed, consisting of four steps.
First, the EBAS "Alert" Chime (a two tone signal repeated three times, then a louder tone, which was composed of the sine waves of 853 and 960 Hz due to the unpleasantness to the human ear. Any regular programming would then break through to give the message, including a display on a TV screen.
Next for the "Television Visual Alert" there would be five lines on screen (radios did not feature this):
- The first was of the Emergency Broadcast Alert Service.
- The second was to name the kind of emergency in five categories: Extreme Weather Alert, Public Safety Alert, National Security Alert, War Attack Alert, and the most serious, the Nuclear Attack Alert. Each category, excepting War Attack Alerts and Nuclear Attack Alerts, have further descriptions. Example: some Extreme Weather Alerts include Tornadoes, Flash Floods, Fire, Hurricanes and Earthquakes. In the event of a broadcasted test, the message would say "MONTHLY TEST" or "ANNUAL DRILL."
- The third line(s) would be which area the Alert is issued for (ranging from entire US to single counties or states).
- The forth line would list who authorized the alert. The alert can be issued by all levels of government, but priority is in the following order: President of the US and/or Authorized Representatives, US Government Agencies and Departments (including the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, the Federal Office of Civil Defense and the Unites States Meteorological Service), State Government or State Civil Defense, and Local Authorities such as a Mayor or local police departments. Therefore, a message from the President has priority over those in a local authority.
- The fifth line is a scrolling message that relays important details of the alert, including severity of storm, how long such an emergency is supposed to last, or in case of war, where people should go, what they should do and other such important notifications. In a test, the scrolling message would only say: "THIS IS A TEST. THIS IS ONLY A TEST. TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE EMERGENCY BROADCAST ALERT SYSTEM, OR HOW TO PREPARE FOR ANY POSSIBLE EMERGENCY, PLEASE VISIT WWW.CIVILDEFENSE.US." During the yearly drill, the message would say "THIS IS THE ANNUAL DRILL OF THE EMERGENCY BROADCAST ALERT SYSTEM. PLEASE FOLLOW ALL INSTRUCTIONS ON SCREEN TO PROTECT YOURSELF AND YOUR FAMILY IN THE EVENT OF A SERIOUS EMERGENCY.TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE EMERGENCY BROADCAST ALERT SYSTEM, OR HOW TO PREPARE FOR ANY POSSIBLE EMERGENCY, PLEASE VISIT WWW.CIVILDEFENSE.US."
Third, a voice over of the electronic "Disaster Charlie" will then play as the information was shown on the screen, relaying the important information to listeners. Radio messages are almost solely this. It would usually repeat twice, or, in some cases indefinitely until the emergency was over. For tests, the voice over would say: "This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast Alert System. To learn more about the Emergency Broadcast Alert System, or how to prepare for any possible emergency, please visit www.civildefense.us."
Last, an "end of message" chime (three short beeps) would play. In some areas, this warning would continue to play, and in some instances other languages (mostly Spanish in the West) would then repeat the warning in said language, including a special Television Visual Alert in that language as well. The alert will then constantly repeat until the emergency was declared over.
Text messages, due to the special device inside, would alert the owner of the cell phone or EBAS Text Message qualified device with the Alert Chime until the owner read the message. Again, this would be similar to a Television Visual Alert, though simplified for the limited application of text messaging. The original Electronic Mailing EBAS would have consisted entirely of text in a message
In the 1970s, the governments of Assiniboia and the Democratic Confederate States expressed interest in extending the EBAS service to also include their nations, due to the infrastructure that was in place in the US. In the end, Assiniboia would establish their own in 1976, the Assiniboian Public Emergency System (affectionately known as APES), but based almost entirely on the US version. The North CSA was integrated into the EBAS system in 1974, and after the CSA was unified, the EBAS was extended over all of the Confederacy. As of early 2012, Texas was interested in a possible extension of the EBAS over their nation, but nothing has come of this yet.
Other countries do have emergency systems similar to EBAS, most notably Russia, the Bjuro Grazhdanskoj Oborony Sistema Opoveshhenija or BGOSO (the Bureau of Civil Defense Alert System), and France's Système de communication publique Sécurité (Public Safety Communication System), and the English "Three Minute System."
Due to the constant testing and use of the EBAS for severe weather or public emergencies, the system, much like CONELRAD before it, has become a major part of the cultural fabric of the United States. However, most TV shows, movies and radio plays that have an emergency broadcast usually fudge a few details when presenting it in fiction, usually the alert chimes, as the Department of Communication has sought to ensure that people will not become accustomed to the alert tones and tune them out in the event of an actual emergency. It requires a special license from the Department of Communication to use a non-altered EBAS for a movie, TV show or increasingly video games, and fines can be issued. One of the most notable was when techno music group "Halfway to Space" was issued a $500,000 fine for using the EBAS alert chime in their song World War Whatever. However, with the rise of video sharing websites, well-created, fictional versions of the EBAS have been produced, along with filmed versions of the tests. The Department of Communication, while originally trying to suppress these videos, eventually gave up and allowed them to continued to be seen online, considering them to be useful educational tools.