The Emergency Broadcast is a means of public warning and public annoyance alike. Hearing an Emergency Broadcast warning of actual danger may lead to Oh Crap, Mass "Oh Crap", the need for one's brown pants to be brought - in that way it may be the ultimate Brown Note. On the other hand, a test or a warning of something that doesn't affect you (e.g. a missing child warning, a flood when you're on high ground, a tsunami when you're 100 miles inland) may be a Berserk Button and lead to frustration with Crying Wolf. Another frequent frustration is when an actual alert has such horrible sound quality you can't understand what's being said. In many countries, Atomic Hate was the primary reason for the system's creation, and it eventually (and thankfully) ended up never being used for that purpose and being used for many others.
Needless to say, Truth in Television.
Emergency Broadcast systems by country
USA: The first US Emergency Broadcast system was CONELRAD (CONtrol of ELectronic RADiation), intended only to warn listeners/viewers of an impending atomic attack and to make it hard for Soviet bombers to find American cities by using radio direction finding. It was eventually renamed the Emergency Broadcast System when advances in communication and weather radar made it possible for state and local authorities to use it to disseminate information about local emergencies. Later, as alerts began to be disseminated through non-broadcast routes (cable and satellite TV, cellphones, weather radios), the system was again renamed, this time as the Emergency Alert System, or EAS.
All TV and radio stations are required to test their EAS systems at least once a month, with weekly tests required for feeder stations. Of course these tests usually warn that there's no actual emergency going on first. This has resulted in the phrase "This is a test. This is only a test" and the old two-tone EBS attention beep becoming a part of popular culture. The new EAS alerts may or may not include a two-tone attention beep but always include an encoded ASCII string, repeated three times, which sounds like an old-school modem and is called a "chirp" or "duck farts" in the business. The string contains specific information as to the type of alert (or test) and the location of the emergency. Some modern weather radios can be programmed to only activate the alarm for alerts that apply to where the radio's installed and only for hazards that would actually be of concern to the area. In some areas the EAS test is unannounced and contains only the three ASCII chirps.
The EAS is usually activated locally for tests and missing children/Amber Alerts. Tornado and severe thunderstorm/ flash flood warnings are also common reasons for activations, occasionally leading to a Crowning Moment of Awesome. Less commonly, fires, tsunamis, chemical spills or other local disasters can result in an activation. State and especially national activations are usually reserved for nuclear attack or any other apocalyptic-level threat. Many times these alerts then redirect to an area's local NOAA Weather Radio station, where an automated voice reports the event's details.
A national EAS test was performed on November 11, 2011. It showed that nationally, the system needed a little work: Some cable providers switched to their EAS feed station (usually QVC or another Home Shopping channel) without showing the test, others didn't state that a test was happening, and Direct TV viewers were hearing Lady Gaga instead of the test message.
Canada: Only one province, Alberta, has an emergency warning system. The Alberta Emergency Public Warning System was planned after an F5 tornado tore through Edmonton, but was only picked up by all broadcasters after a F3 tornado destroyed a campground at Pine Lake. The EPWS serves to advise the public of imminent threats such as severe summer weather (tornadoes, thunderstorms, and floods) and civil emergencies, and also broadcasts AMBER Alerts. It generally is not used to disseminate less emergent weather alerts such as snowfall or blizzard warnings, as those are considered relatively common events during most of the winter (and spring, and...).
In addition, Environment Canada runs Weatheradio Canada, which disseminates weather warnings, alerts, and tests on VHF radio.
United Kingdom: The Four-Minute Warning, an emergency broadcast only to be used in the case of Atomic Hate. (This system was dismantled in 1992). Weather warnings and other emergency messages are done through news special reports.
Japan: The Emergency Warning System is used primarily as a very short-fuse warning on earthquakes (e.g. 10 seconds or so between warning and quake at best) and to warn for imminent evacuation due to tsunamis. The tone will almost immediately be followed up with a broadcast from the NHK in both Japanese and English audio or subtitles. The more bells/more urgent the tone, the more urgent or severe the threat is, and its use is reserved for imminent danger and national tragedies (for example, the tone that was used to indicate the start of WWII has yet to be used again).
Also, the Japanese test signal is not entirely standardized across broadcasting stations (even stations within a given city like will differ; examples abound on YouTube) except for the emergency chime, a video/audio description of when a real broadcast would be activated, an emergency tone, and a notification in Japanese that the audible "piro-piro-piro" tone (the data burst, not the bells mentioned above) is only audible on analog TVs, with an additional device required after the digital transition due to it being a data signal to digital TVs.
Australia: The Standard Emergency Warning Signal, used primarily in Queensland to warn of cyclones, but now possibly being expanded for bushfires and terror threats in the rest of the country. Possibly, along with Japan's EWS and Alberta's EPWS, one of the few Emergency Broadcast systems to originally be developed specifically for a weather/geological hazard rather than Atomic Hate.
Czech Republic: Alarm sirens are tested the first Wednesday each month, at noon. They are accompanied by voice messages announcing that it's just a test, but especially if you are in a building the only thing you hear is the sirens' wailing.
Austria: Austria has several kinds of alarm sirens that are broadcasted mostly from the firefighter stations. Siren test (every Saturday at noon): 1x 15 seconds steady Fire alarm: 3x 15 seconds steady Warning: 3 minutes steady Alarm: 1 minute wailing All-clear: 1 minute steady All sirens are tested on one Saturday in the year instead of the noon test.
South Korea: Around the fifteenth of every month (usually) at 2pm, civil defense drills are conducted. Sirens go off and all road activity is stopped for fifteen minutes. Pedestrians are encouraged to get off the pavement and take shelter. Radio stations (but not TV) interrupt their broadcasts with the sirens at 2pm and tell people where to go and what to do in case of emergency (usually assumed to be an attack from North Korea). At 2:15pm an all clear siren sounds and normal activity resumes.
Russia: An old system of power-independent wire radio ("radiotochka") still exists for this exact purpose, for performing emergency broadcasts even during blackouts.
- An early issue of Epic Illustrated has a one-page strip in which a couch potato is lazing in front of his TV set with a beer. A voice from the TV announces a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. The guy swigs a beer as the warning tone sounds, then starts to look uncomfortable and sweat, before finally writhing in agony and melting into a skeleton. In the final panel we see that the world outside has been incinerated. Meanwhile the voice on TV blithely announces "this was only a test."
- Truth in Television, obviously. Examples of some accidental Apocalypse How alert activations when no disaster really existed can be found on the Mass "Oh Crap" page.
- Any time a car radio is on in a 60s or 70s TV drama, chances are good that an EBS test is being broadcast. That's because the text of the EBS test is a work of the federal government and therefore in the public domain, so producers didn't have to pay royalties or license fees if they used it. Eventually, though, Washington asked the networks to cut down on the practice so that prime-time TV viewers wouldn't become overly used to the noise and simply tune it out.
- There is an ad for a business in the US called Lumber Liquidators that uses a beep very, very similar to that of the EAS that airs on at least CNN.
- Radios and TVs air a number of emergency warnings shortly before the attack sequences in The Day After. The broadcasts downplay the danger the public is in and are often ignored; one couple blithely sneaks upstairs to have sex as their young children watch an announcer struggle through an EBS alert. The last EBS announcement, broadcast as the sirens blare in Kansas City and residents downtown succumb to helpless panic, reassures listeners that there is no immediate danger but suggests that travellers in the metropolitan area take a moment to locate a nearby shelter. The first bomb explodes over the city in the middle of the broadcast.
- The Protect And Survive announcements in Threads as well as the attack warning.
- Subverted in the 2005 War of the Worlds, when the standard American EBS announcement that it's "only a test", and not "an actual emergency", plays on the radio of the hero's car as he's driving through the decimated countryside. Presumably, as it is an extreme actual emergency, whoever was supposed to replace this generic transmission with warnings and/or instructions for the public is already dead. Also see the radio show below.
- Used dramatically in the Made for TV Movie Without Warning, which interrupts the opening of another, ostensibly unrelated TV movie to inform the viewer that a meteor is headed towards Earth.
- Used to let us know when passing into the Dark World in Silent Hill. With a very creepy soundtrack, too...
- Used at the end of Countdown to Looking Glass.
- Shown briefly in Testament.
Music and Sound Effects
- Negativland used the WHEN/Syracuse jingle version of the EBS script in their live performance "It's All in Your Head FM".
- The song "This is Only a Test" by American punk rock band Pennywise opens on distorted television sounds and the line "This is only a test of the emergency broadcast system, this is the product of hysterical mass confusion."
- Prong used an EBS test message in the song "Test" on their 1994 album Cleansing.
- The Insane Clown Posse album Bizzar opens with a news broadcast, which is upgraded into a nationwide emergency broadcast in its sister album Bizaar.
- Famously used as part of a radio show in the 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds. The broadcast was formatted as a series of news alerts, and many listeners (reportedly up to a quarter of them) thought that the show was reporting an actual alien attack. As a result of the chaos that ensued, it is rumored that CBS is, to this day, forbidden to use the words "We interrupt this broadcast" for dramatic purposes.
- Played for drama in Modern Warfare 2, where the intro sequence to the mission "Of Their Own Accord" is an emergency broadcast system alert containing evacuation instructions for residents of Washington, D.C and its commuter belt. It also warns citizens to "remain alert" because the Ultranationalist troops assaulting the East Coast are killing any civilians they encounter in revenge for the False-Flag Operation at the start of the game.
- Is played with in the Emergency series of PC games, as you are the one who has to clean up the mess.
- Silent Hill uses an air raid siren, which does a similar thing, but without anyone talking. Hell Is That Noise ensues.
- Played for laughs in the 1996 PC game Stay Tooned.
- Freakazoid parodied the EBS in an episode shown in this clip.
- In Dexters Laboratory, Dexter's favorite show Action Hank was cut by a test of the EBS. Not knowing it was a test, Dex began solving every emergency he could find to get it to stop before realizing it was just a test.
- In one episode of Tiny Toon Adventures, Hamton imagines himself being subjected to 60 seconds of the Emergency Broadcast System as a form of Cool and Unusual Punishment.
- The National Film Board of Canada short The Big Snit takes place during a nuclear war and a TV is shown playing a parody of nuclear attack warnings.
- Aeon Entelechy Evangelion features an Emergency Broadcast broadcast in English and Nazzadi languages.
- This tribute to Superfriends starts with a reporter in the middle of a catastrophe calling out for heroes.
- YouTube is full of uploads of EBS/EAS tests (as well as those for other systems outside the US.) There are also clips where the sound is used as a screamer, as well as plenty of parodies, remixes, mockups, and Youtube Poop.
- One terrifying but wholly unrealistic YouTube original horror creation is this. It's the use of the NOAA weather radio emergency tone, civil defense sirens, and voiceover work to create a very simulated Emergency Broadcast of a nuclear attack. This is of course nothing like how a real attack would occur, but it's still scary.
- Other simulated EAS alerts on YouTube highlight other non-weather, non Atomic Hate hazards it is sometimes used for (with the alert-type 3 letter abbreviation for said type added afterwards in parentheses), including some that are recordings of actual EAS activations such as:
- Escaped Wild Animal(s) (Local Area Emergency - LAE)
- Industrial Fire (Industrial Fire Warning - IFW)
- Chemical Hazard (Chemical Hazard Warning - CHW)
- Tsunami (Tsunami Warning - TSW)
- Dam Break (Dam Break Warning - DBW)
- Earthquake (Earthquake Warning - EQW)
- Landslide (Land Slide Warning - LSW)
- Dust Storm (Dust Storm Warning - DSW)
- Avalanche (Avalanche Warning - AVW)
- Cyber Attack (Emergency Action Notification - EAN - same code as would be used for impending nuclear attack)
- Contagious Disease (ends with a Contagious Disease Warning - DEW)
- Contaminated Water (Contaminated Water Warning - CWW)
- Food Contamination (Food Contamination Warning - FCW)
- Volcano (Volcano Warning - VOW)
- (Note. Not all of the above links are to recordings of real alerts. Most are for simulations).
This concludes this test of the Emergency Broadcast System. If this had been an actual emergency, you would have been advised to drop to your knees, grab your ankles, and kiss your ass goodbye.