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FEMA will test national emergency system today

When a message declaring an emergency alert starts running across your television screen today at 11 a.m., don't call 9-1-1.

It's the Federal Emergency Management Agency's first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System, which will run for 30 seconds starting at 11 a.m. Pacific Standard Time today. Every television and radio broadcast in the nation will be interrupted by the brief test.

The EAS is a warning system the federal government can activate during major catastrophic events to provide information to the general public. This is the first nationwide test of its kind to check for system errors, the FEMA website said.

"It's a really complicated thing. You're dealing with something that is a national scale undertaking, but you're involved in the execution of it through local entities that are scattered all over the country," said Ron Kramer, executive director for Jefferson Public Radio, whose broadcasts reach throughout Northern California and as far north as Eugene.

Internet and mobile communication devices such as smartphones will not be affected.

"It will look a lot like local tests," said Mike Howard, spokesman for FEMA Regional Office 10 in Bothel, Wash.

A key difference will be that the EAS test will appear as an actual emergency warning. Whether local stations opt to run a scrolling message stating it's only a test is up to them, though they are encouraged to do so, Oregon Emergency Management officials said. Some radio and television station viewers will hear a message stating, "This is a test."

The test broadcast has been scaled down from the originally planned three minutes to about 30 seconds.

"They decided it was going to interrupt peoples' lives too much," said OEM public affairs coordinator Jennifer Chamberlain.

Bob Wise, KOBI TV general manager and vice president, said the tests are good reminders of what broadcast stations do during emergencies.

"During extreme national emergency, we have to maintain a reliable communication to the region we cover to allow the president to give direction to the American people," Wise said in an email. "The test allows all broadcasters the opportunity to verify they can meet those needs, if necessary."

While FEMA has been trying to spread the message to the public about the test, officials at the local dispatch center, Emergency Communications of Southern Oregon, said they are still prepared for the possibility of numerous calls into their 9-1-1 center. All four dispatch supervisors will be on site to help handle any additional call traffic.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at rpfeil@mailtribune.com.