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Tuesday 11 February 2003

The Boy Who Cried Wolf

At 2:00 p.m. today, I was driving along, listening to WTOP all-news radio from Washington. They had just finished a story on the anti-aircraft missile batteries that were deployed in and around Washington last night, and had then switched to CBS network coverage of the recent increase in terrorist message intercepts.

A few seconds into that coverage, the voice cut out and the Emergency Alert System tones came out of the speaker. The noises the system makes are different from the old Emergency Broadcast System squeal, the sound we all expected to hear one day just before we were told that the missiles were on their way from over the North Pole.

What was happening? Had there been an attack on Washington? A bomb? Chemicals? Smallpox? The radio and TV had been full of doom-and-gloom stories all morning. Should I get the hell home before the roads were clogged with traffic heading to the ‘undisclosed location’, which is only a few miles from here?

As it turns out, of course, none of that was the case. The emergency that justified breaking into radio (and, I presume, TV) programming? A two-month old child had been abducted in Baltimore — seven hours earlier, at 7:00 a.m.

If you look at a list of FCC “event codes” for the Emergency Alert System, you note that it’s a list of real disasters: Civil Emergency Message, Earthquake Warning (?!), Hazardous Materials Warning, Radiological Hazard Warning, Evacuation Immediate, Shelter In Place Warning, etc. These warnings all represent situations where thousands or millions of people could be at risk, and where a large number of people need to take some kind of action immediately.

However, there’s also an event code for “Child Abduction Emergency”, a situation where precisely one person is at risk, and one where the vast, vast majority of people listening need not do anything.

We’re doing a lot of irresponsible things in the name of Saving The Children, so I don’t know why I’m surprised that we’re doing this. At what is probably the time of greatest threat to the United States itself since the Cuban Missile Crisis, the radio stations are interrupting programming to broadcast alert messages for a single missing child.

Reagan’s 1984 on-air joke (.au file or .wav file) that ‘we begin bombing in five minutes’ was probably worse, but then that wasn’t meant to be broadcast to or heard by anyone outside the studio. The amount of idiocy that law-enforcement officials have shown in deciding to broadcast this kind of crap (broadcast of CAE messages is, I believe, voluntary, but ultimately in any case the order comes to the radio and TV stations from the cops) at this time is difficult to fathom.

The whole point of the EAS, and the EBS before it, is to be the doomsday whistle. When you hear that horrible noise coming out of the radio or TV, you drop what you’re doing and listen, because the information that follows is likely to be directly applicable to you, personally, and to your survival. If the thing is activated too often, it’ll lose its effectiveness.

Posted by tino at 16:02 11.02.03
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You should contact WTOP and complain that they scared the crap out of their audience for no reason. We are at “High” terror alert, after all. There’s absolutely no excuse for such a misuse of the system.

Posted by: Nicole at February 11, 2003 04:33 PM

The broadcasters don’t decide whether to activate the system or not; government officials do. I believe that each station gets to decide its own policy on whether or not to broadcast the ‘Amber Alert’ messages, but that’s set as an overall policy, not decided on a case-by-case basis. Participating in the EAS program as a whole is a condition of getting a broadcasting license from the FCC. You’ve got to have special radios that pick up on the signal from the master stations in the area (in Washington, that’s WTOP, actually) and rebroadcast it.

Posted by: Tino at February 11, 2003 04:58 PM

I, for one, am glad that someone, anyone, is finally thinking of the children.

Posted by: RRP at February 11, 2003 11:21 PM

Posted by: Paul Johnson at February 12, 2003 11:13 AM

A further story in the Washington Post in regards to this alert http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A62134-2003Feb12.html. It turns out the story of the abduction was fabricated.

Posted by: Paul Johnson at February 12, 2003 12:35 PM

I was in shock that because a father obducted his family two counties south of me was importent enough to warrent the use of the emergency alert system. I missed several critical parts of the movie that I was watching on cable for something that I nor almost anyone else watching could effect the outcome of. This system was made to save/inform the lives of thousands/millons of people in a life threatening crises for the city/regoin not one kid.

Posted by: Rob at January 31, 2004 07:47 PM