Saturday, May 08, 2010

This is Only a Test

When I was growing up, long before I understood the threat of nuclear holocaust, I was profoundly disturbed any time a broadcaster in my area conducted a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.

Having a mellow afternoon of Al Brodax-era Popeye cartoons callously interrupted by that godawful attention signal was pure nightmare fodder to my young mind. Even though the Emergency Broadcast System was replaced in 1997 by the Emergency Alert System - which has its own equally annoying attention signal - I still occasionally have nuclear war dreams in which EBS figures prominently.

When I was a college radio DJ at UT, I always hoped I'd one day get to conduct an EBS test myself as a symbolic triumph over childhood fear. Sadly, KTSB was only "broadcasting" on cable radio back then, so we didn't commit the time, training and expenses to do EBS tests. By the time the station took to the airwaves as KVRX, I'd long since graduated.

Occasionally, you'd hear a local EBS activation for a tornado warning or something like that, but the system was never activated for a national emergency. Except once. Sort of.

At 9:33 a.m. EST on Saturday, February 20, 1971, the EBS was accidentally activated because of an erroneous message from the National Warning Facility at the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado. Interestingly, very few stations did what they were supposed to do if it had been an actual emergency. Many stations didn't get the activation messages and the vast majority of those that did ignored it. A contemporary Austin American-Statesman story about the goof reported that KVET didn't do an EBS activation because it occurred at approximately the same time as a regular weekly test of the system. Although the National Warning Facility sent a cancellation message at 9:59 a.m., that message didn't use the proper authentication code. A cancellation message with the correct code didn't go out until 10:13 a.m.

I've read several print accounts of this false alarm, but I've always wondered what it would've sounded like if I'd been listening to one of the stations that actually announced the false EBS activation back in 1971. Fortunately, an astute radiohead named Jim Cassell has preserved a recording of WOWO's broadcast out of Fort Wayne, Ind. from that morning. You can hear it - with the attention signal presumably (and mercifully) edited out - right here.

Although announcer Bob Sievers is very professional and careful not to unduly alarm the public, hearing this would've scared the oatmeal out of me. Needless to say, this would've been a much bigger deal had it occurred in the middle of a weekday instead of on Saturday morning. And the worst part of it is that the last record you would've heard before the missiles struck was "Doesn't Somebody Want to be Wanted" by the Partridge Family.


Dan said...

I remember it well, Saturday morning. We were all pretty spooked up in Omaha.

Greg said...

With the Strategic Air Command right down the road, I bet you were!