Radio DaZe: This was a test:
The National Alert System test was a spectacular failure yesterday, prompting this memory:
I was in the control room at WSNO on a Saturday morning, suffering with the country music show. My only salvation, it would be over at ten am and I could play some hits.
In the background the AP machine was chugging along but suddenly I heard bells. Bells meant a headline. But these bells were persistent. Ten in all. Hmm…I thought. I ran out to the machine and saw the alert message.
More from wikipedia:
A nationwide activation of the EBS was called an Emergency Action Notification (EAN). This was the only type of activation which broadcast stations were not allowed to ignore; the FCC made local civil emergencies and weather advisories optional (except for stations that had agreed to be the “primary” source of such messages).
To activate the EAN protocol, the AP and UPI wire services would notify stations with a special message. It began with a full line of X’s, and a bell inside the Teletype machine would sound ten times. To avoid abuse and mistakes, the message included a confirmation password which changed daily. Stations that subscribed to one of the wire services were not required to activate the EBS if the activation message did not have proper confirmation.
ED NOTE: The message authenticator was in a pink envelope thumbtacked to the control room wall. Normally you just got a test message and those words were on the outside of the the envelope. This day was different.
False alarm of 1971
Despite these safeguards, the system was inadvertently activated at 9:33 AM EST on February 20, 1971. Teletype operator W. S. Eberhardt accidentally “played the wrong tape” during a test of the system. As a result, an EBS activation message authenticated with the codeword “hatefulness” was sent through the entire system, ordering stations to cease regular programming and broadcast the alert of a national emergency. A cancellation message was sent at 9:59 AM EST; however, it used the same codeword again. A cancellation message with the correct codeword, “impish,” was not sent until 10:13 AM EST.
This false alarm demonstrated major flaws in the EBS. Many stations had not received the alert, but more importantly, the vast majority of those that did ignored it, or did not know what to do during an emergency.
Numerous investigations were launched, and several changes were made to the EBS. Among them, the on-air alert announcement was streamlined, eliminating one version of the script that warned the audience of an imminent attack against the country.
ED NOTE: So there I was. Looking at the message. I was supposed to open the envelope and check the codeword out. Damn! It was the right one! Now what?
The protocol was to play the precorded message and then shut the transmitter off. In those days I just did what I was told. So I did, bumping the plate button off and waiting for the bombs to fall.
I turned on the ancient CONELRAD monitor, which was getting WDEV (640) and “Music to go the dump by”. I was really really scared. I decided that country music was our salavation.
I put the plate back on and finished the country show. What else was I supposed to do?
The PD was furious. The GM said it was all right, no harm no foul. And I was the only operator that I knew that did the correct procedure.
It’s comforting to know that more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s still just a simple idea, but it hasn’t worked right yet.