Today I want to tell you about the United States’ Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), which was in operation between 1963 and 1997. It was designed to allow the President to speak to the people of America in the event of war, threat of war or national emergency. More specifically, I want to tell you about the false alarm that happened on February 20th 1971.
The broadcast could be received by many radio and television stations across the country and the system was tested every Saturday at 9.33am Eastern Standard Time. A test message, that was generated from Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, would arrive via a teletype printer. The message would be recorded in the transmitter log and everyone could just forget about it. In the case of a real emergency, a bell inside the printer would sound ten times, there would be a row of X’s at the start of the message and then there would be a codeword. The codeword changed every day and each station received a list of them every three months. They were to be kept sealed inside an envelope. As well as a codeword to authenticate the message, there was a second code word which could be used to cancel the message.
The test message that was sent every week was stored on a tape and simply slotted into the machine at the appropriate time. The real emergency messages were also stored on tape. On February 20th 1971, the man in charge of sending out the message, Wayland S Eberhardt, simply put the wrong tape into the machine. So, when broadcasting stations were expecting to receive the usual test message, what they got was ten bells followed by this:
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
Anyone who ripped open their envelope and found the codewords would, at that point, have found that the authentication code for that day was indeed, ‘hatefulness’. Some stations went off the air immediately to make way for an announcement from the President. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, broadcaster Bob Seivers was forced try to explain to the listeners what was going on. He had no information to give them and just had to keep saying so over and over. Meanwhile at Mount Cheyenne, Wayland Eberhardt had realised his mistake and was frantically trying to cancel the message. He must have been in a terrible panic because it took him six attempts before he managed to include the correct cancellation codeword in the message. The word was ‘impish’. It took him forty minutes to cancel the message.
I said only some stations went off the air. Only about 20% followed the correct procedure. Some didn’t know what the procedure was. Some didn’t even look at the message, assuming that it was just the regular test. Others realised other stations were still broadcasting and ignored it. Some stations did not receive the messages at all. One poor broadcaster tore open his envelope only to find that it was empty. The whole débâcle proved one thing beyond all doubt. EBS was rubbish.
What good was it if not everyone had received it? Why was it that some people didn’t know what to do? What would happen if there was a real national emergency at 9.33 on a Saturday morning? How could they stop this horrible mistake happening again? I’m happy to tell you that poor, distraught Wayland did not lose his job. They looked at the way all the tapes were stored. They were all hanging on hooks side by side above the transmitter. They decided to remove the emergency tapes and put them away in a cupboard, leaving only the regular test tape near the machine.
America’s emergency broadcast system is now all dealt with by computers, thus eliminating the possibility of human error. So it’s all fine now. Apart from that time in 2005 when the entire population of Connecticut was mistakenly ordered to evacuate. Or any of the other times it’s been set off accidentally. Or that time in 2013 that hackers broke into it to announce a zombie attack.
Maybe you’re starting to think America’s Cold War plans to protect it’s people in the event of a nuclear attack were a bit rubbish. Want to know what was planned for us here in Britain? The BBC planned to distract us with music and light entertainment. There were hundreds of BBC staff and radio artistes who had been security vetted. In the event of all-out war, they were to be deployed secretly at transmission sites all across the country.