February 20

1971 — Emergency Broadcast System False Alarm


You always said that the best time for an attack would be during a regularly scheduled drill — when people would assume the alert wasn’t real.

After a distinctive, 30-second tone:

“This has been a test and only a test.”

Or, “This is not a test.  An attack against our country is imminent. Seek shelter immediately.”

At 9:30 am EST on February 20, 1971, an operator accidently played the wrong tape.  The day’s password, ‘HATEFULNESS,” identified the Emergency Broadcast to other national outlets as authentic.

The mistake wasn’t corrected until 40 minutes later.

Since the EBS alert played during the regularly scheduled “test” time, most assumed it was only a drill and a national panic was averted.  For a handful of folks, though, that must have been a pretty long 40 minutes.




You hadn’t expected to hear the sound again.  The EBS tone was now the stuff of nostalgia, useful in days of three network channels and limited local radio stations.

These days, people spend as much time on their computers and phones as they do listening to radio or glued to their television sets.  It would be difficult to reach everyone at the same time.

Your radio and television are turned off.  But you’re hearing the signature EBS tone.

It’s 18 minutes past the hour:  an odd time for a test.

The tone is coming from next door.  It’s coming from a car driving slowly past your house.  It’s coming from a loudspeaker at the roof of a nearby office building.

After 30 seconds have elapsed, a distorted voice will float through the air to offer muffled reassurance.

You check your wristwatch.  The digital display is flashing.

Just a guess, but you’re certain the tone has continued for at least a full minute.

In your home office, your sleeping computer decides to reboot on its own.  Your phone, facedown on the kitchen counter, begins to vibrate.

How long?  Three minutes.  Four.

The EBS tone continues — a steady beep from outside, assaulting your building from all directions; a teeth-grinding drone broadcast from every electronic device in your home.

It is the sound of a heart monitor, flat-lining.

You hope the sound will end soon.

You hope it won’t.