Most adults can remember those ubiquitous tests of the Emergency Broadcast System on television and radio: “This is a test. This is only a test.”
Forty-four years ago today, however, it was not a test. It was the real thing… or so it seemed.
Established in 1963 by the Federal Communications Commission and the Office of Civil Defense, the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) was designed to transmit an Emergency Action Notification (EAN), on all broadcast stations – television and radio – allowing the government to communicate swiftly and directly with the American people in the event of a national emergency.
In the event of an emergency, such as an attack upon the United States, an ENA would be initiated by the National Warning Center, located at, by not managed by, North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) at Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Using the teletype circuits of United Press International and the Associated Press, the National Warning Center would transmit an Attention Signal (at alternating frequencies of 853 and 960 Hz, for technophiles) to decoders at relay stations that would activate an alarm, alerting station operators of an incoming emergency message. The message was accompanied by a code word, to be verified by the individual relay stations. Each station would then transmit the Attention Signal on the air and rebroadcast the emergency message. Code words were changed daily, and the EBS was tested twice a week to assure preparedness, but only at scheduled times, to prevent misunderstandings.
Or so it was thought.
At 9:33 AM EST on Saturday, February 20, 1971, at the commencement of a scheduled test, a teletype operator at the National Warning Center inadvertently fed the incorrect tape into the teletype transmitter, sending out an emergency message to 5,000 radio and 800 television stations across the United States. The message was accompanied by the authenticator “hatefulness”, that day’s code not for a test, but for an actual national emergency.
The teletype message read:
MESSAGE AUTHENTICATOR: HATEFULNESS, HATEFULNESS
THIS IS AN EMERGENCY ACTION NOTIFICATION (EAN) DIRECTED BY THE PRESIDENT.
NORMAL BROADCASTING WILL CEASE IMMEDIATELY. ALL STATIONS WILL BROADCAST EAN MESSAGE ONE PRECEDED BY THE ATTENTION SIGNAL, PER FCC RULES. ONLY STATIONS HOLDING NDEA MAY STAY ON AIR IN ACCORD WITH THEIR STATE EBS PLAN.
BROADCAST EAN MESSAGE ONE.
MESSAGE AUTHENTICATOR: HATEFULNESS, HATEFULNESS
And thus began what one radio announcer later remembered as “my longest five minutes in radio.” (You can hear an archived aircheck of that announcer, Bob Sievers, broadcasting the EAN on WOWO, Fort Wayne, Indiana, here.
There was chaos and confusion in the nation’s newsrooms. No one had ever seen an actual Emergency Activation Authentication before. The fact that the message came at the same time as a scheduled test added to the confusion. (As one New York radio station manager was quoted anonymously, "If the Russians want to attack us, they should do it at 9:33 on a Saturday morning.") Others argued that an actual emergency alert was supposed to be preceded by ten bells on the teletype; this alert had followed only three bells. While hundreds of radio and television stations followed the instructions and went off the air immediately after broadcasting an EAN message, many more did not.
The alert revealed system-wide weaknesses in the EBS. Many stations did not know the correct procedure; others chose to check first if other stations in their area had gone off the air before deciding whether to follow the alert. Some stations couldn’t find the authentication word on their lists; others couldn’t even find their lists. Some stations failed even to receive the alert at all. The White House Communication Center fielded dozens of calls from radio and television stations looking for confirmation of the alert. The White House could only say it knew nothing of the erroneous message but likewise had no knowledge of an actual emergency.
Staff of stations that had followed through and broadcast the emergency alert, however, were seriously on edge.
David Skinner, news director of radio station WEVA in Emporia, Virginia, recalled, “I thought I was going to have a heart attack trying to open that damned envelope [containing the authentication codes]. I haven’t felt that way since John Kennedy was killed.”
Station manager Chuck Kelly of Brazil, Indiana’s WWCM, told a reporter, “I saw the authenticated message and thought, ‘My God, it’s December 7 all over again.’”
Larry Best of KXEL in Waterloo, Iowa, gave this account: “I knew it [the test] was coming through. But I didn’t pay much attention to it until I went to rip it off the wire. Then I noticed the message authenticator. It was the right one all right. It kind of shook us up a little. We immediately left the air and went into the instructions for emergency programming and played the tape we have of it. Immediately, in seconds, all three telephones in the office were jingling like mad.”
Many of those listening to or watching stations that responded to the “national emergency” were terrified. Wherever word of the alert message was broadcast, people panicked. According to United Press International, police, radio and television stations across the United States received thousands of calls from people asking what the national emergency was.
Fairly quickly after the emergency alert was sent out, the National Warning Center realized the error. A message was sent saying: THIS IS THE NATIONAL WARNING CENTER – CANCEL EAN TAPE SENT AT 9:33 EST. Since the message did not include a code word, though, conscientious stations were obligated to ignore the retraction.
At 9:59 EST the National Warning Center tried again, using the code word “hatefulness.” However, since “hatefulness” was the code word to initiate emergency action, not conclude it, many stations again ignored the message.
At 10:13 EST, 40 minutes after the initial emergency alert had been transmitted, the Center found the right formula, issuing a retraction along with the day’s correct authenticator to cancel action, "impish."
President Nixon declined to comment on the incident, but the Pentagon released a statement placing the blame solely on the Office of Civil Defense, overseers of the National Warning Center. The Center’s own investigation concluded that it was simple human error. It seems that the tapes, for both tests and actual emergencies, had been hung side-by-side on pegs in front of the teletype operator at the NWC, almost begging for the wrong tape to be pulled and transmitted.
Sometimes mistakes just happen, was the conclusion. It’s hard to disagree. Thankfully, for most of us, our mistakes don’t portend World War III.
Minor procedural changes were made in the EBS, and the emergency alert tapes were separated out and hung in a cabinet some feet away from the teletype so that deliberate action had to be made to retrieve them. No heads rolled, no one was fired or punished. The teletype operator on duty that day was a 15-year Civil Defense veteran with an otherwise spotless record; he was exonerated.
The EBS was retired in January 1998 and replaced with the Emergency Alert System (EAS), which provides access to broadcast stations, cable systems and participating satellite programmers for the transmission of emergency messages. The EAS uses digital codes to activate decoders and send emergency warnings without the need for human interpretation.
For, as we all know, computers never make mistakes.