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Emergency Alert System takes over Chicago broadcasts

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Aug. 3, 2007  ·   A mix-up with the federal Emergency Alert System (EAS) caused radio and television stations in…

Aug. 3, 2007  ·   A mix-up with the federal Emergency Alert System (EAS) caused radio and television stations in Chicago and throughout Illinois to be interrupted between 7:30 and 8:00 a.m. June 26.

At about 7:35 a.m., the broadcasts gave way to a message that said, “The emergency action notification network has issued an emergency action notification for the United States.” The message was followed by dead air and then, on almost every Chicago station, the voice of WGN-AM radio host Spike O’Dell, trying to figure out what was happening.

When the state’s emergency alert system is activated, WGN is designated to broadcast the message. There are several different types of broadcast interruption codes, but the one issued by accident in June (called an emergency action notification) was of the highest priority. Usually that type of interruption is reserved for a message from the president in a time of national emergency, such as a nuclear attack.

According to Associated Press reports, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was in the process of installing a new satellite warning system. The test alert was intended to be internal only, but instead more than 500 stations received the message.

The EAS was created during the Cold War era to allow the government to communicate emergency instructions quickly and directly to the public. Although the EAS originally gave the president a way to communicate with the public through broadcast channels, it has been expanded over the years to allow the government access to a wide variety of communication channels.

The Federal Communications Commission now requires cable television stations, digital cable providers and digital radio providers to participate in the EAS, meaning that all these communication channels can be taken over by the federal government. Participation in state and local alert systems, however, is not mandated by federal law.

The EAS was designed to ensure that if one link in the communication chain was broken, the public could still receive information from multiple sources in case of an emergency. Currently, the federal government has the ability and legal authority to control the majority of the nation’s major communications outlets, with the exception of the Internet.


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