Broadcasters statewide report glitches with emergency system

ABC7 News | June 26, 2007
By Paul Meincke

June 26, 2007 (WLS) -- If you were watching TV around 7:35 Tuesday morning, you saw an emergency alert crawl across your screen. It was a mistake caused by a malfunction of the Emergency Alert System. There was no actual alert.

The Emergency Alert System is set up so that government can get emergency information to the public through TV and radio. We see it most frequently in alerts from the National Weather Service. What happened Tuesday is a faux pas that has broadcasters in a tizzy and the state's emergency experts asking What was that all about?

About 7:35 a.m. Good Morning America was about to do some weather when the tones came. And then a message on red background saying, "The emergency action notification network has issued an emergency action notification for the United States." And the message is time specific. But what's it for. What does it mean? What is this for?

Mark Sakalares heard it on morning radio and thought it must be a test.

"And then after that, the second time, I'm thinking somebody goofed up, and the third time, oh, somebody's in big trouble," said Sakalares.

After some dead air, WGN radio morning host Spike O'Dell is suddenly being heard on just about every radio and TV station in Chicago, and he's not sure of what's happening.

"We're trying to figure out what all the beeping's all about, we'll figure it out and let you all know," O'Dell said on-air.

When the state's emergency alert system is activated WGN-AM is the station designated to simulcast the message. Tuesday's was an emergency action notification. An EAN means we are about to hear from number one.

"And it's normally reserved for the president of the United States who is the only one who is supposed to be activating this," said Kal Hassan, VP engineering for ABC7.

The president was not part of any message Tuesday, because the alert was indeed a test. Except no one in Chicago's 9-1-1 center or the state's emergency OPS center in Springfield knew anything about it.

The federal emergency management agency is adapting satellites to handle emergency messages, and a government contractor Tuesday was testing it for Illinois, except he used active codes to send the message.

"So I'm still waiting for answers as to why a real code was used to test the system," said Andrew Velasquez, Illinois emergency management director.

If you're in charge of managing emergencies in Illinois -- as Andrew Velasquez is -- imagine what you'd think if you heard the emergency notification on the radio and you didn't know anything about, nor did any of the people who work with you, at least immediately.

A false alarm like Tuesday's morning's may not harm anyone, but Velasquez suggests it can cause fear and, perhaps worse, complacency.