Alaska tests nation’s emergency alert system

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Radio listeners and TV viewers in Alaska witnessed the first national emergency exercise of its kind Wednesday morning, but the test ran into distribution problems around the state.

Radio and television broadcasters participated in a live statewide test of the nation’s Emergency Alert System, which employed a never-used code that would be applied in a national crisis. Cable providers also were supposed to receive the message, but at least one major company said the procedure bypassed them.

“A national emergency action notification has been issued for: District of Columbia, DC,” ran a red message banner at the top of the television screen to stations not beset by several reported glitches.

Filling the rest of the screen was a scene of a snowy, wooded mountain, superimposed by a large red stop sign and the words, “Chill! It is just a drill.”

The 10 a.m. Alaska Standard Time test will help officials prepare for a future national exercise not yet scheduled, according to state and federal officials.

“We will need some time to analyze the results, but we intend to move quickly to improve the system,” Jamie Barnett, chief of the Federal Communications Commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, said afterward in a statement.

The three-minute airing — activated from Washington, D.C., by the Federal Emergency Management Agency — was unlike regular periodic tests aired by broadcasters in communities or within state lines. It was the first official activation of the Emergency Action Notification code, to be activated nationwide only by the White House to give the president access to airwaves during a real crisis.

The alert system has been in place since the mid-1990s, replacing an older emergency communications system.

The president’s notification code has never been activated for any crisis, said Damon Penn, FEMA’s assistant administrator of National Continuity Programs. The code would be crucial in a widespread disaster, so even 9/11 didn’t trigger it, he said.

“It was not deemed necessary to issue a nationwide alert,” he said. “That disaster did not limit any communications.”

Officials considered the test “absolutely successful,” with a few anomalies found as expected, said Bryan Fisher, chief of operations at the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Some broadcasters did not receive the signal in time and others got a weak connection or only the audio portion of the exercise.

For example, statewide cable provider GCI — with 130,000 subscribers — didn’t receive the initial launch signal, although it did get the disconnect signal, according to company spokesman David Morris. He said the company learned later Wednesday that FEMA sent out the wrong message.

“The signal they put out reached primary listeners, like broadcasters, but not secondary receivers like cable companies,” Morris said. “It’s better to figure these things out during the test period rather than in an actual national emergency.”

Participants will spend the next weeks, or even months, working through the problems, Fisher said. He said glitches could be blamed on various factors, such as old equipment or flaws with programming or audio levels.

Participant said the exercise has been in the planning since September. The Alaska Broadcasters Association developed public service announcements on the exercise that began airing Dec. 21, said the association’s executive director, Darlene Simono.

Alaska was chosen for the initial test run for several reasons, Fisher said. Alaska is well-versed in similar exercises conducted through the national public warning system to test tsunami warnings and Amber Alerts within the largest state in the country.

Alaska’s extreme isolation also cuts down on the chance of the test reaching beyond state lines and potentially causing confusion, Fisher said.

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