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Barrett Manor

Julie Barrett is a freelance writer and photographer based in Plano, TX.

Had This Been An Actual Emergency...

Fresh (almost) daily from Julie Barrett


I've been reading that a national EAS test is scheduled for later today. That brings back some memories. I worked in radio in the early-mid 1990s, back before there was digital anything. I was doing an air shift during a national test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This was back in the days of the Civil Defense. I had to open (dun, dun, DUN!) The Red Envelope. It was a direct simulation of what to do in the event of a national emergency. They sent us all instructions ahead of time, and we were all standing around the wire machine waiting for ten bells, which was the signal for a national emergency. They sent the code word, and then I had to grab the envelope, open it, and start the test.

 

As you would guess, there was a script to follow for a standard test. This one was similar, except we inserted the word "national," which they'll be doing today. Our EBS test announcement was recorded, but I had to read this one live because it was a national test. Hoo, boy. I had never opened one of these envelopes before we had instructions to return them, sealed, to the station manager. I think we got a new one every quarter. I don't know if that was our protocol or that of the CD. The face of the envelope was printed with dire words in all caps proclaiming BAD THINGS might happen if we dared open the envelope except during an emergency. So I opened the envelope and remember reading more dire warnings to double check that the code word was the same as the one we had received over the wire. It was, so I went ahead.

 

We had to activate the system for a test once a week. There was a little box under the console with a button, a speaker, and a little headset. The button was to activate the tone. We had to watch the clock and push the button for the specified number of seconds. The way this worked was that there was a cascading stream of stations. One station in the area would be a primary (that was KRLD). When they ran a test our box would sound an alarm. That was fun when they ran a test during one of our station breaks! We had to log the test. Sometimes the National Weather Service would ask them to activate the EBS system in the event of a tornado warning. We only had to log that. We were never to activate our own system unless there was a test or an emergency and we were instructed to do so. Yep, that meant opening The Red Envelope. That never happened when I was on the air. And I lived in dread of making a slip-up (even when we passed along a watch or warning that came down the wire) and saying "Godless Tornadoes." As one does, of course.

 

So you may be wondering about ten bells. Back in the day the wire machines were essentially low-res dot matrix printers connected to a phone line. We had to replace the ribbon once in a while. Ewww. There was a bell (much like a typewriter bell) inside. They'd send a code down the wire to make the bell ring anywhere from 1-5 times. 1-2 rings was "hey, you may want to look at this." It was mostly normal alerts which were anything from the latest stock market numbers to non-critical story updates to announcements ("hey, the president his holding a scheduled press conference today. We'll move details as we get 'em.") Three bells was important stories and updates. Four was breaking news, but not exactly a bulletin. Five was an honest-to-goodness we're-not-kidding-here-you may-want-to-break-into-programming bulletin. I heard one while I was on the air. Ten bells was The Big One. Or a test for same.

 

Anytime I heard three or four bells that was a signal to check to see what was going on. We had no idea if it was a national or local story until we went and read the copy. Five bells was "holy crap, this ain't good." In this era of breathless reporting of breaking news every time someone farts (I suppose that would be breaking wind news), I'm going to translate this to a Trump scale.

 

1 bell: Trump is doing nothing. We just wanted to let you know. BTW, here's the latest numbers from Wall Street.

 

2 bells: The president tweeted again. This time it was about Justin Bieber. Nothing political. Go about your business. BTW, he might tweet something important. We'll let you know.

 

3 bells: He's at it again. This time he's calling us Fake News because we reported that a cat had been run over on a residential street and it turned out to be a dog instead. BTW, there's a multi-car accident on the freeway which has traffic backed up for miles. And the mayor is making a major announcement about the homeless situation. We also heard Mueller has issued another subpoena.

 

4 bells: Yes, we've confirmed the subpoena. Also, an old movie star has died. There's been a major earthquake near the old Texas Stadium site. Speculation is that God is upset that His Team got moved and He can no longer watch when they close the dome on the new stadium. Details forthcoming.

 

5 bells: Alert! Congress has actually done something! Also, a major celebrity or former president has died. That accident on the freeway turns out to be a hazardous spill, and a five mile radius is being evacuated. Someone has declared war or followed through the declaration with an attack.

 

10 bells: Someone's got their finger on The Button. Or it's just a test. Carry on.


Filed under: Humor            
9/27/2017 8:54:31 AM
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