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Emergency Alert System Test Runs Into Trouble

First nationwide test of the emergency broadcast system failed to reach many TV and radio stations, and in one case was backed up by Lady Gaga's song "Paparazzi."
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The first nationwide test of the emergency alert notification Wednesday failed to reach numerous radio and TV stations. In many places that the alert did reach, it carried poor or incorrect audio.

The test, which was supposed to take place simultaneously on all radio and TV stations around the United States at 2 p.m. Wednesday, failed to work in places as disparate as New York City cable stations, Dallas radio stations, and statewide in Oregon.

While the Emergency Alert System dates back in one form or another almost 60 years, the current system has never been tested nationwide. The purpose of the test was, according to a letter informing government and industry leaders, "to allow FEMA and the FCC to assess how well the Emergency Alert System would perform its primary function: alerting the public about a national emergency." It appears the answer, at least for the first test, will be: not that well.

[ The government has a lot of technology challenges. Read Obama Orders More Technology Cuts. ]

The test was to last 30 seconds, with text across the TV screen in most places and audio informing the public that the alert is only a test. However, some stations broadcast alerts for a longer period of time. According to reports, cable stations in Los Angeles saw a 15-minute alert, and a station in Washington, D.C., broadcast the message for four minutes.

There were also audio and video failures in certain locations, including poor sound quality, doubled or tripled audio feeds, or background noise instead of the announcement. DirecTV subscribers reported that the emergency alert popped up on the screen, but was backed by a soundtrack of the Lady Gaga song "Paparazzi."

Over the next few weeks, FEMA and the FCC will gather test results and feedback, including emails from the public. While there's no second national test planned, FEMA said in a blog post Wednesday afternoon that the test was "just the beginning of much larger efforts to strengthen and upgrade our nation's public alert and warning system" that will grow to include other technologies like mobile phones and the Internet.

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