I wish I could say that I was surprised that the so-called first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) was a bust.
During my past life doing public affairs work, one of my successes was helping a great family-owned station in the Pacific Northwest increase its signal to the 50,000-watt maximum for AM radio, up from a mere 5,000.
I will spare everyone all the messy and glorious details, except for the fact that today that 50,000-watt station provides emergency alert services to areas of several counties in Northwest Washington state that previously could be reached only by Canadian broadcasters.
Because putting about 100,000 people under the broadcast umbrella for their own country for emergency purposes was pretty important, I had to learn a lot about the way EAS works.
The key thing to know is that emergency broadcasting is built from the bottom up. Just because FEMA and FCC cannot figure it out does not mean it’s not working. It is more complex than the system it replaced, called Control of Electromagnetic Radiation (Conelrad).
From 1951-1963, we did not want Russian bombers riding in on radio waves so the plan was just to shut off the stations and use two frequencies for Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower or John Kennedy to talk to the American people.
The Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) operated from 1963 to 1997, when the EAS replaced it.
Today, the Emergency Alert System ties AM, FM, and Land Mobile Radio Service together, along with VHF, UHF, and low power TV and cable providers, including satellite-linked Direct TV and Dish Network. Commercial broadcasters are key and those 50,000-watt AM stations are the backbone of the EAS because it will take a lot to knock them off the air.
The fact that EAS has evolved beyond the Cold War role of its predecessors is evidence that it works.
The two best examples are severe weather warnings and Amber Alerts. Anyone who lives in Tornado Alley or has experienced flooding knows how quickly EAS can be put to use.
Amber Alerts, with broadcast information sometimes paired with freeway reader boards and reverse 911 calls, have been successfully used to recover children who are kidnapped or otherwise put in harm’s way.
Giving anyone the EAS keys, besides the President, a governor or perhaps a mayor, is not without controversy. The Amber Alert criteria used by most EBS broadcasters are strict. Typically, there has to be an immediate threat to a child under 17.
Which brings me to this — there should be a role for the EAS in food safety.
As with Amber Alerts, the use of EAS for food safety would have to be limited. It’s not a tool one would want to employ for every recall or outbreak. When the public hears those tones and reader boards light up with emergency information, it must be for something of obvious importance to everyone who hears or reads it.
But let’s roll back two months to when the outbreak of Listeria illnesses involving “Rocky Ford”-brand cantaloupes was first known. Jensen Farms, through its distributor, had sold more than 1.5 million cantaloupes in 24 states. Listeria, for certain at-risk groups, poses a deadly threat.
Wouldn’t it have been a positive action to deploy the EAS system in those 24 states to declare a “food emergency?” Instead of taking one or two news cycles to get the word out about possibly contaminated melons, an EAS food emergency would have been immediate communication. My guess is had EAS been used in the cantaloupe-related outbreak, the warning would have saved lives.
Right now, top local law enforcement and the National Weather Service have EBS in their tool kit. Why not add state epidemiologists to that list? Sure, just as with Amber Alerts, it will require coming up with some criteria and doing a lot of negotiating with the EBS purists.
It is also an option that would be available to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner and the USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety. As with infrequent Amber Alerts, we would not expect to hear about a food emergency very often, but when we did, we’d listen up.