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The Emergency Broadcast System Can Suck It

By WILL CIMINO     The traditional fears of a young kid never really applied to me. Monsters never really scared me, I was fine with the dark, and thunder, or burglars. But I really don’t think I can earn any bragging rights from any of that when I reflect on what really scared me… and slightly still does. The Emergency Broadcast System.

emergency broadcast system

Those 30 second bits on TV that struck at random were the only one thing that could dwarf my fear the alarm system in my old house. I used to switch gears from first to fifth when walking past it in a hallway. I even regularly sat myself in the kitchen in the seat the FURTHEST away from the nearest alarm unit on the wall in the next room, just to avoid making eye contact with it. Yup, it had eyes. Tiny illuminated green eyes. But I’d have gladly had a staring contest with those satanic eyes before not blocking my ears and running out of the room during the Emergency Broadcast System.

After growing up a little, I could never put my finger on what it was that scared me so badly. If I had to speculate, I’d assume it was the fact that it randomly came on (or attacked) during television shows and commercials, muting all sound instantly, and switching to a man in a deep voice trying to assure me, “THIS IS ONLY… A TEST.” Then came the robotic modem-esque tones. The way I remember it as a kid, was a running text on the bottom in all caps saying words I never read because I was too scared to, with a picture of a satellite against a red background. It was all low budget and felt very “early 80’s” even when it was running in the 90’s. I remember working up the courage to ask my dad what it meant and he joking told me, “If any aliens land on earth they’re going to run that message so we know what to do.” Bad answer, Dad. Now I’ll only be twice as afraid. But it turns out he wasn’t exactly wrong…

A decade and a half later I’m watching Carson Daly’s show at 2:00 in the morning… Don’t judge me. In the middle of one of his godawful bland monologues it cuts to the Emergency Broadcast System. It’s funny because I still to this day get extremely uneasy when it comes on, especially when it wakes me up. But after I bear through it like a child waiting for the doctor to take a needle out of his arm, I start to think about it… I really have no idea what the Emergency Broadcast System is all about. So I decide to do some research online. Where do I look? Wikipedia obviously.

According to Wikipedia, the Emergency Broadcast System has been around since the early 60’s and it’s for the President of the United States to communicate to the American public in the event of war, threat of war, or grave national crisis. I guess we can’t rule out those alien landings after all Dad. But the interesting thing is it’s never been used for more than “a test” except for one accidental slip up in the early 1970’s. Wikipedia says, “Teletype operator W. S. Eberhardt accidentally ‘played the wrong tape’ during a test of the system. As a result, an EBS activation message authenticated with the codeword ‘hatefulness’ was sent through the entire system, ordering stations to cease regular programming and broadcast the alert of a national emergency. A cancellation message was sent at 9:59 AM EST; however, it used the same codeword again. A cancellation message with the correct codeword, ‘impish,’ was not sent until 10:13 AM EST.” Uhh.. I don’t know why they went with “hatefulness” as the codeword but if I saw that word flash on the screen during an actual emergency as a kid I probably would have had nightmares for weeks. But this still left me wondering what the point of it is. They didn’t use it during 9/11 or during Hurricane Katrina, so what are they waiting for? Do they really need aliens to land?

What’s the good news? This article informed me that I’m not alone! On the last blurb of the article it states under ‘Purpose of the test and cultural impact’: “The weekly broadcast of the EBS test message made it part of American cultural fabric of the era, and became the subject of all kinds of jokes and skits. Several people have testified about being frightened by the Test Pattern as children, and actual emergencies scared them even more.” YES! Now I feel like less of a loser for being so afraid of this! (Oh really Will, you just said it still makes you uneasy, how about you get over it?) My research didn’t stop there. I Googled “afraid of Emergency Broadcast System” and found message boards filled with posts about how people were scared of this as a kid. It’s a scar that never fully healed and I still carry to this day. AND I KID YOU NOT – JUST FOUR MINUTES AFTER I FINISHED TYPING THAT SENTENCE AND SHUT THE LAPTOP SCREEN DOWN THE EMERGENCY BROADCAST SYSTEM CAME ON



I, too, was scared of the test system. I haven’t seen it in a while .. you really helped me to dredge some dark parts of my psyche, William.


I was a broadcaster in Oneonta, New York and North Adams, Massachusetts for almost 24 years. “This is only a test.” Yeah, right. In the event of “an actual emergency”, my ass would’ve been running out of the studio and getting home to collect my family!


This slightly helped me. I am though still deeply horrified of the sound that comes on. I will go into a full panic attack and I have no idea why. They use the tone somewhat frequently here in Nebraska because they use it to tell us about tornados. I know they use the tone to get your attention but couldn’t they use a little bit nicer of one?

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