I was listening to the radio the other day and heard the strange automated croaking of the Emergency Alert System signal. Growing up, it was called the Emergency Broadcast System and this series of sounds signaled one of two things: a national emergency of grave importance, or a test of the system.
Radio and television stations used to be required to test the system at least once a week. They would follow the signal with the words “this has been a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. If this had been an actual emergency, the attention signal you just heard would have been followed by official information, news, or instructions.”
Recently, the Emergency Alert System signal has been used to notify Americans of severe weather alerts. I’ll hear the signal and then a computer-generated voice from the National Weather Service will say “severe weather is expected this afternoon” or “blizzard-like conditions are imminent.”
For me, growing up during the Cold War, the signal meant one thing. The Russians were coming. When I’d hear the signal, I’d be frightened. I’d hold my breath, waiting for the signal to end, and then wait for the comfortable voice notifying me that it was “only a test.”
Back in the Cold War days, radio and television stations were occupied by actual men and women who worked around the clock. They’d literally play records, press buttons to initiate commercials and public service announcements, and write down everything that happened in the logs they were required to complete for the Federal Communications Commission. Now, much of what comes over radio and television is pre-programmed and can be controlled remotely. Sometimes, human intervention isn’t even needed.
They still test the Emergency Alert System from time to time. Lately, I’ve noticed that broadcasters have become haphazard about announcing the signal. Sometimes, it sounds like it is played accidentally, by some twist of a misplaced electron. No soothing voice tells me whether it is a test or an actual emergency.
Are the Russians still coming?
I try to ignore it, like everyone else does, but what if this is the one time it actually is a national emergency? Then what? Do I run to my bomb shelter?
Maybe it was all just theatre, teaching us fear instead of resilience.