On February 20th, 1971, a Civil Defense employee in Colorado accidentally transmitted the wrong teletype cartridge. A few minutes later 2500 radio and television stations across the United States—including Fort Wayne’s WOWO—received this coded teletype message:
MESSAGE AUTHENTICATOR: HATEFULNESS/HATEFULNESS
THIS IS AN EMERGENCY ACTION NOTIFICATION (EAN) DIRECTED BY THE PRESIDENT. NORMAL BROADCASTING WILL CEASE IMMEDIATELY…
The weekly test of the Emergency Broadcast System (now known as the Emergency Alert System) had been scheduled for that day and time, but the codeword HATEFULNESS did not indicate a test. It indicated the real deal. As far as broadcasters knew, at 9:33 AM EST that morning, the missiles were flying.
The error started deep in the belly of Cheyenne Mountain, ten miles outside Colorado Springs. This triple-peaked mountain had long been the base of NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and the Office of Civil Defense (now known as FEMA). Every week, Cheyenne Mountain sent out a test of the Emergency Broadcast System, proceeded by a predetermined codeword. Broadcast outlets received an updated list of these codewords every three months.
Since 1963, the weekly Emergency Broadcast System test reminded Americans that nuclear annihilation was just a single bad decision away. It announced itself, on both radio and television, with two jarring sine waves (specifically 850 and 960 Hz). Specifically designed to be unpleasant, the sound of an emergency alert is unmistakable and unforgettable. Even today.
Broadcast stations were given a list of code words, which changed daily, so broadcasters could differentiate between a test and a real emergency. If the alert was real, most stations were required to cease broadcasting. Some were required to remain on the air to relay important information to frightened Americans.
On that day, the Cheyenne Mountain employee had three tapes to choose from, each with a different codeword, and all three dangling from labeled hooks above the teletype transmitter. One indicated a routine EBS test. The other two were real EBS alerts. Quite simply, the employee plucked the wrong one off its hook and into the teletype transmitter. By the time the mistake was caught, it was too late.
Broadcast stations had very specific protocols to follow upon receiving this alert. Most stations were ordered to tell listeners that the President had ordered an “executive notification,” and then immediately go off the air. Only one broadcaster in each geographic area would remain to relay information to Americans. This kind of media streamlining would prevent potentially-disastrous confusion and misinformation. With nuclear war a constant threat, it seemed like an excellent chain-of-communication in a national emergency. Seemed.
Since the EBS test had been transmitted at the scheduled day and time, many stations across the country believed the teletype had been an obvious mistake. It didn’t matter. In those dark days of the Cold War, broadcasters knew second-guessing Civil Defense could cost someone their job. Television and radio stations across the country went dark.
Fort Wayne’s WOWO, and legendary broadcaster Bob Sievers, didn’t do that. If the EBS alert had been an accident, then thousands of listeners would wait in horrific anticipation. With Sievers’ livelihood at risk (as well as WOWO FCC license), the Fort Wayne station did not go dark.
Sievers explained the importance of the received EBS message, and the procedures broadcasters were supposed to follow during such an alert. He provided updates as they arrived. He ensured the audience that although the situation was serious, there was no immediate reason to panic. During this entire drama, WOWO played the canned and ominous orchestra music commonly used during emergency alerts.
Inside Cheyenne Mountain 1200 miles away, the error had been caught almost immediately. The operator repeatedly sent teletype messages to kill the alert almost immediately, but none were preceded by the correct codeword IMPISH. This barrage of kill orders only confused thousands of broadcasters even more. It took the staff at Cheyenne Mountain over 40 minutes to realize the mistake and send out the correct IMPISH cancel order.
Back in Fort Wayne, after conferencing with other radio stations across the country, Bob Sievers and the staff of WOWO realized the emergency alert had been sent in error. There was no impending nuclear armageddon on the horizon. With the practiced ease of a career broadcaster, Sievers explained the mistake to the listening audience. On that day in Fort Wayne’s listening area, there was probably no single person more beloved than Bob Sievers.
Ultimately, the mistake would (technically) come down to one man: a civilian operator named Wayland S. Eberhardt, who had preformed his duties flawlessly for 15 years. His mistake had been an honest one and the first of his long career. Eberhardt himself could offer no excuse. “I can’t imagine how the hell I did that,” he later said. The incident so rattled Eberhardt that the Office of Civil Defense did not even terminate his employment. By their reasoning, it was a mistake he would never make again. They were right.
The United States has activated the EBS/EAS tens of thousands of times, although never for its intended purpose: nuclear war. Its use as a regional alert system during civil emergencies —tornadoes, floods, even terrorist attacks—has proven to be very effective. The sound of an EBS has thread its way into our American DNA. Even today, most adults will spring to attention at the sounds of those jarring sine waves. Only once has the United State used the EBS for its intended purpose (sort of)…during 1979’s Three Mile Island nuclear accident near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Want to Know More?
Learn about Indiana’s earlier brush with nuclear disaster in the article “Indiana’s Nuclear Accident: The “Broken Arrow” at Bunker Hill.“
*The 1983 television film The Day After remains one of the highest-rated television films in American history, largely because of its unflinching depiction of a global thermonuclear war. The movie so affected President Ronald Reagan that he altered his foreign and military nuclear policies. Here’s the complete film…