A Quick Word to the Folks at the Emergency Broadcasting System

I was tooling up the highway yesterday, somewhere in the vicinity of Stockton, CA. I have music on my phone, but I thought while I was around civilization I’d check the airwaves. I’d found a station that at least for a moment didn’t suck, and all was well with the world.

Suddenly: a grating series of beeps that sounded like they’d been put through a blender assaulted my ears. This is the attention tone for the Emergency Broadcasting System. Those beeps were followed by a long purer tone. Then another tone at a different pitch. Lesson one for the EBS: Quit with all the tones. I almost turned off my radio, figuring that there wasn’t going to be any information, just some sort of beep-fest. The only thing that kept me listening was the bank of thunderheads looming ahead of me. Just this once, the EBS might be giving out useful information.

Finally the broadcast tired of the beeping and booping and hit me with a burst of static. From within this noise, a distorted voice that sounded like it had been bouncing through phone lines since 1920 began dispensing… what? I don’t know. It was completely incomprehensible. Lesson two for the EBS: the information won’t help anyone if no one can tell what you’re saying. I think I picked out the word “alpine” and later “water”. That’s about it.

Flash floods? Possibly. Were they anywhere near where I was heading? No way to tell. Was there something I should do differently? Only one way to find out. I drove on.

I had the top down, so I was not in ideal listening conditions, but I could understand all the other people on the radio, all too well. Now there was something I actually wanted to hear, something intended for public safety, and it was just a jumble of noise.

Now it may be that the guy who recorded the message was not in a position to make a high-fidelity recording, but come on. Surely somewhere in this entire damn country there was someone who could have taken one thin minute to re-record the message in better circumstances.


6 thoughts on “A Quick Word to the Folks at the Emergency Broadcasting System

  1. You’re not right. You’re damn right. I second your emotion. Those recordings come from the national weather service. I have plenty o friends there, so I will ask them wtf. I suspect it is a problem with the equipment being….indeed 1920s.

    • I’d be curious to hear their take on it. Since any PC that cost $200 could record better than what I heard, and digital distribution of the recording would be practically free, I wonder if there are a series of checks along the way that compound distortion because “that’s how we’ve always done it.”

  2. From my good friend Mark at the National Weather Service:
    […] it is antiquated technology and it sorely needs to be upgraded (apparently it is in the works if there is money for it). It is mostly automated but we can make manual recordings if needed. It is not only for weather warnings but can be used for civil emergencies (the manual has cool 50s/60s-era references to nuclear attack). I think the best thing about it is that it can still function without internet/mainline power/etc.- kind of like ham radio. Something to be said for old tech that has some resiliancy during a disaster.

    So there ya go. I think it is cool that it is not dependent on the internet, but if a person can’t make out what it says, then it is useless. On a related complaint – I have a NOAA weather warning radio that is great for alerting to imminent tornado. The problem is that they also send out warnings for severe thunderstorms and floods. At 2 am, when you could hardly care less about a thunderstorm, it sucks to be woken up. I want it for tornado and NOTHING else.

    • Thanks for following up. Your friend’s answer makes good sense; I hadn’t considered resiliency as a requirement, so now the low quality starts to make a lot more sense. It may be that the wavelength used for the distribution broadcast is very long and therefore lower fidelity. Possibly amplitude modulated (AM) as well, which is more vulnerable to interference.

      If I were them I might set up a high-quality Internet-based system with a fallback to the bulletproof radio system. Then I’d hope to never have an emergency so dire we needed the old system.

  3. The system in New Mexico was working just fine June 26. There was no static, despite the sky being full of a gigantic plume of smoke. Of course, it probably helped that we were tuned to “The Fifty-Thousand-Watt Voice of the Great Southwest,” which is also originates the message — other stations simply relay the message from KKOB, so the clarity of what they put out depends both on the clarity of KKOB’s signal and also their own.

    And, Jess, I would say that a tornado is not the ONLY event that the EBS should cover …

  4. The flash flood warning I heard while driving through Santa Fe the other day was much clearer, and was preceded by only one long tone. While happy to be able to understand it, I was sad to hear that a storm dropping up to an inch of rain per hour was passing over the recently burned areas and threatening Bandelier. Hopefully damage wasn’t too bad.

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