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All but the youngest readers surely remember those ubiquitous tests of the Emergency Broadcast System on television and radio: “This is a test. This is only a test.”

Forty-two years ago today, however, it was not a test. It was real – or was it?

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 punched 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:









20 FEB

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. 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 systemwide 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 whther 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 the UPI, police, radio and television stations received thousands of calls from people wondering 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. Minor procedural changes were made in the EBS, but no heads rolled, no one was fired or punished.

You can bet that conclusion wouldn’t fly for a moment in 2013. In all likelihood, John McCain and Lindsey Graham would be clamoring for congressional hearings and the Fox News Channel would be connecting imaginary dots to root out a left-wing conspiracy leading all the way back to President Obama.

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.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I was 14 when this happened. (28+ / 0-)

    I don't remember anything in real time, I'm sure I was outside playing ball--no I-Phones back then.

    But I do seem to remember the network newscasts breathlessly reporting it that evening.

    Growing up in the cold war sparked in me a morbid interest in nuclear war and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction and such.

    So in college (I was working in radio as the time as well), I became fascinated in EBS and just what the hell was supposed to play out had "this been a real emergency."

    I spent an entire semester researching the links between federal, state and local planning and discovered a FEMA thing called the Crisis Relocation Plan that was supposed to involve commandeering school buses to move people from targeted urban areas to rural places.

    It was a pipe dream. I chased down the CRP plan for my jurisdiction. Most of the people with key roles were not even aware of it. Anyway, I got an A on the paper and started working on a dark comedy screenplay because the plan was so absurd that was the only genre that did it justice. Sigh, it's still not finished.

    Thanks for the diary, enjoyed it.

    •  I was in middle school when the Soviets shot down (5+ / 0-)

      The Korean Airlines flight with the congressman onboard.  A short time after that, the nuclear war movie, The Day After was shown on TV.  I totally believed that a nuclear war was a real possibility.  

      My teacher actually told our class that the evacuation zone for our area of Connecticut was in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.  The next day I was home alone watching TV when the EBS came on, and for like 10 seconds I totally believed that a nuclear war had started, and I remember thinking frantically to myself, "How the hell do I get to the Berkshire Mountains!?"

    •  I was at sea and missed the whole thing (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      WakeUpNeo, The Eyewitness Muse

      I think we were in the Bearing Sea at that point and only received official messages via crypto gear and teletype.

      But I remember when Nixon was ordered to turn over his tapes and put the entire military on alert for a day. That was an interesting weekend. I'll have to do some research and write a diary.

      "May you live in interesting times", indeed.

  •  "Computers never make mistakes"... (7+ / 0-)

    never have, and never will.

    Just ask my old buddy, HAL!

  •  Interesting. Thanks for the history lesson... (8+ / 0-)

    Nowadays, it seems like Comcast has those warnings two or three times a month, and I must admit; they're annoying as hell.

    First thing I do is grab the remote and hit the mute button. lol

    "That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history." ~ Aldous Huxley

    by markthshark on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 02:20:19 AM PST

  •  There will be no nuclear apocalypse - ever (0+ / 0-)

    The elites own the chessboard. All the pieces are are controlled by them. Do you think they want to ruin the game, destroy the chessboard? No way. Yes, they may ruin the environment, but they can sell fresh air. If they splode a nuke - the consumer base shrinks. They don't want that.


    by FakeNews on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 02:37:23 AM PST

    •  Human error (5+ / 0-)

      I'm with you in that there will never be a nuke war where one side plans a 'Bolt Out of the Blue' and then executes.

      Human error and miscalculation during crisis is another thing:  Check out 'Guns of August' by Barbara Tuchman.

      It doesn't help that out biology seems hard wired towards accepting game theory....especially 'chicken' (just look at our current domestic politics)

      Throw in systems errors and things get scary

      This space for rent -- Cheap!

      by jds1978 on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 06:26:52 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I wish I could give them that much credit (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      SilentBrook, wasatch, WakeUpNeo

      "True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country."

      Kurt Vonnegut

      If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

      by Major Kong on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 08:54:48 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I don't remember this, but feel like I should! (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jennyp, Oh Mary Oh, wasatch, WakeUpNeo

    Of course I was 13 and my mind was on - well, me.

    It does remind me a bit of the wild fiction, War of The Worlds.

    "When faced with darkness, be the light. Remembering Richard Myers"

    by Leslie Salzillo on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 04:41:54 AM PST

  •  thanks! great history post! eom (5+ / 0-)

    If you didn't like the news today, go out and make some of your own.

    by jgnyc on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 04:50:39 AM PST

  •  I was stoned and I missed it. (8+ / 0-)

    Help me to be the best Wavy Gravy I can muster

    by BOHICA on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 05:03:59 AM PST

    •  AHHH! (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      BOHICA, JeffW, SilentBrook, wasatch, WakeUpNeo

      I was 21, and I've been sitting here wondering why I have no memory of such a dramatic event.  Now I have my answer!

      I never thought of myself as much of a stoner, until my son became a film major.  He would ask me about movies from the era - Blow-up, 2001 a Space Odyssey, etc. - and I kept finding myself unable to discuss them intelligently with him. I finally realized I'd been stoned while watching all of what would become classics.  

      The past 50 years we: -Ended Jim Crow. -Enacted the Voting Rights Act. -Attained reproductive rights (contraceptive & abortion). -Moved toward pay equity. Republicans want to take our country back. I WON'T GO BACK!

      by petesmom on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 07:24:50 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  How one might compensate... (0+ / 0-)

        State-dependent learning

        State-dependent learning (state-dependent memory) is a notion that learning and recalling are based on the physiological and mental state of the organism.

        It has been very clearly demonstrated that things learned in one environment are best recalled when that environment is reinstated; and, moreover, this applies equally well to “internal” environments (or states) as it does to “external” environments.[1]

        An Early Account

        A very clear description of state-dependent memory is found in John Elliotson's "Human Physiology" (1835):

        "Dr. Abel informed me," says Mr. Combe (presumably George Combe), " of an Irish porter to a warehouse, who forgot, when sober, what he had done when drunk: but, being drunk, again recollected the transactions of his former state of intoxication. On one occasion, being drunk, he had lost a parcel of some value, and in his sober moments could give no account of it. Next time he was intoxicated, he recollected that he had left the parcel at a certain house, and there being no address on it, it had remained there safely, and was got on his calling for it. This man must have had two souls, one for his sober state, and one for him when drunk."

  •  Though I don't remember this event, (7+ / 0-)

    I would've been 7 and watching cartoons at this moment in history. I still remember the Emergency Broadcast System announcement word for word, along with the "Fallout Shelter" signs in the basement of our apartment building in Queens.

    Thanks for a cool diary!

    Being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead. ~K. Vonnegut

    by Greek Goddess on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 05:14:34 AM PST

  •  Fascinating Story! (10+ / 0-)

    I worked in radio for ten years, and we played that announcement twice a month.  Until now, I never thought about what I would have had to do had there been an actual emergency.  There was never any discussion about it.  Probably wouldn't have mattered to our two listeners anyway.  One time I was going to give a prize to the first caller who could tell me who was on the Lincoln penny and no one called.  Of course, this was Texas, so it might have been that no one knew.

  •  The authentication code: 'Hatefulness' (6+ / 0-)

    ....spooky shit!

    This space for rent -- Cheap!

    by jds1978 on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 06:09:11 AM PST

  •  Oddly, I remember it (8+ / 0-)

    Republicans represent both sides: the insanely rich and vice versa.

    by Crashing Vor on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 06:10:17 AM PST

    •  WOWO was the station (5+ / 0-)

      we listened to when I was growing up in N.Central Indiana,  It was bubble gum, but I remember Bob Sievers well, and have to say inWOWO's defense that they were at least trying to put some decent music on the air, they defended Beach Boys, "Wouldn't it Be Nice", Stone's "Satisfaction" and Tommy James and the Shondell's "I think We're Alone Now".  It was an odd time, WNAP in Indy was pretty good.  WLS out of Chicago (AM) used to come on and say, "all you guys in Indiana better turn off the radio cause we're gonna play Satisfaction, and its 'banned in Indiana'".


      "I said, 'Wait a minute, Chester, You know I'm a peaceful man.'" J. R. Robertson.

      by NearlyNormal on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 07:08:25 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  They still do EBS tests over the radio here (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
  •  Shows how much radio and TV I (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SilentBrook, wasatch, WakeUpNeo

    did even back then - I was 8 months pregnant at the time and totally do not remember this.  But then, nothing has really panicked me since I was a kid.  If you can go through multiple daily air raid drills - indoors and out, combined with fire drills and tornado drills and any other drills a panicky principal could come up with - as I did in October 1962, not much else gets to you.

    And yes the entire RWNJ CT machine would leap into action faster than any response to an actual emergency if it happened today - but only because there's a Dem in the White House.  The lack of punitive response to this could be explained with the standard IOKIYAR president.

    •  I actually agree that no punishment was called for (5+ / 0-)

      At the time, the tapes, for both tests and actual emergencies, were 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. After this incident, the emergency alert tapes were seperated out and hung in a cabinet some feet away, where deliberate action had to be taken to retrieve them. The teletype operator on duty on 2/20/71 was a 15-year Civil Defense veteran with an otherwise spotless record. He was not penalized. Whether you're Democrat or Republican, sometimes mistakes just happen. Thankfully, for most of us, our mistakes don't portend World War III.

      •  Oh I agree as well - just noting that (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        wasatch, Richard Riis, WakeUpNeo

        the response to any particular accident or unforeseeable occurrence as far as the RWNJs are concerned is totally determined by who did it - and who the president is at the time or the response (not necessarily at the time the incident occurred).  I actually think it's a good thing for these kinds of accidents to happen periodically.  You find the holes in the system really quickly when a very rare false alert goes out.  Tests are usually announced ahead of time and frequently don't catch the problems.  (Not too often of course or you get the "boy who cried wolf" syndrome.)

  •  You have to realize (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Hey338Too, SilentBrook, wasatch, WakeUpNeo

    that those damned EBS tests were ubiquitous back in those days.  Everybody saw them, and to kids who weren't clued in to the schedule they seemed random enough.  Also, broadcasts weren't perfect on the old free air-wave TV's.  Interference was common enough, and sudden losses of sound happened fairly often (you would get a "Technical Difficulties: please stand by" printed on the screen until whatever it was was fixed).  So without cell phones and Twitter and internet to propagate hysteria, or any other visible signals of a problem, the normal response was to grumble and go get a sandwich or run outside to play.

    Supposedly, there would be a message if it wasn't a test.  Also supposedly, there would be a flash and a blast and you'd have about three minutes before you were dead in most of the places I lived, which were always near military bases.  So there wasn't a hell of a lot to do about it.  Every so often if the test seemed to go on forever, we'd stick our heads out the window to look for fighters or other unusual planes scrambling.  But we never saw them, even when they did.

  •  Anecdotally.... (0+ / 0-)

    That was a time when school kids were drilled on what to do in case of emergency. I was in college when this event occurred. It was overlooked with a general yawn, as the VN war was raging and we knew the administration and the media were serially lying about most everything at the time.

    A friend shared this anecdote about his visit on back to school night. As part of the classroom review, his teacher asked young Raymond what he'd do when the siren sounded three blasts.

    "I'd crawl under my desk, sit like this, put my head between my legs and kiss my ass goodbye."
    The teacher could add nothing, tried to maintain and moved onto another subject.

    I think that Republicanism is revealing itself as a personality disorder, not so much an ideology." -- Naomi Klein

    by AllanTBG on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 09:16:38 AM PST

  •  Reading about this incident brought back... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SilentBrook, WakeUpNeo

    ... memories of growing up in NOLA.  I don't remember this incident, but I do remember hearing sonic booms while growing up.  This would have been in the late 60's or early 70's.

    I don't recall how many there were, but it was definitely more than a few.  We would usually be in the house, and suddenly there would be a huge, ear-splitting, "boom".  The house would shake for a moment (it literally felt like it was lifted and inch or two off of its foundation and dropped), we would run to the front door, and all of the neighbors would look skyward and then at each other for a few minutes.  Then we would simply start heading back inside and do whatever it was that we were doing.  Such was life in that time, huge boom, still alive, keep on trucking.

    I haven't been here long enough to be considered a Kossack, does that mean that I'm just a sack?

    by Hey338Too on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 09:26:32 AM PST

    •  During those years, (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Hey338Too, WakeUpNeo

      I lived in a small town (now a suburb) where half of the town were dairy farmers, and the other half either worked on the naval air base to the west, or the missile plant to the south.

      Sonic booms were very common, as were the sounds of rocket engines being tested.  None of us paid them any mind.

      And if i'd known then what I know now, I bet I could have told who'd end up being a right-winger by how seriously they took 'duck and cover' drills.  The serious ones backed Nixon, the ones who laughed them off did not.

      I am not religious, and did NOT say I enjoyed sects.

      by trumpeter on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 10:45:32 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  We had family friends who designed and built (0+ / 0-)

    a lakeside home centered around a concrete fallout shelter.

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