FARGO, N.D. — For kids growing up during the Cold War, there were few things on TV or radio scarier than that long, shrill tone and the warning: "This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is ONLY a test."
"It's one of the few things I remember from my formative years. Talk about a good way to scare a kid," said Terri Tyree, 34, who grew up in rural North Dakota, home to many of America's missile silos and nuclear bombers.
Now the high-pitched tone is about to be replaced by a few short buzzes, and the "this-is-a-test" warning may be dropped altogether.
The idea was not to make the tests any less scary to children. Rather, the system for warning the country in the event of a nuclear attack is being modernized, and the buzzes are the sound the new computer technology makes.
The Emergency Broadcast System was designed under President Kennedy in 1963, a year after the Cuban missile crisis, to allow the president to address the nation on a moment's notice in an emergency.
The current test of the system lasts about 35 or 40 seconds; the new one will be shorter, though how much shorter is still unclear. And so far, the Federal Communications Commission has not adopted any requirement that TV and radio stations explain what the digital tones mean. Many stations still might, however, since listeners are likely to wonder.
Currently, TV stations usually put a test pattern on the screen and announce a test is underway. The eight-second, high-pitched signal follows. Then viewers are told that "in the event of an actual emergency," they would be given Civil Defense instructions.
The system has never been used for a nuclear emergency but has been activated more than 20,000 times since 1976 to broadcast civil emergency messages and warnings of tornadoes, blizzards and other severe weather.
During the Cold War, the tone alone was enough to strike panic in children, convinced that nuclear annihilation could occur at any time, even in the middle of Saturday morning cartoons.
Today, most thirty- and fortysomething Americans could probably recite the entire thing.
"Oh, sure, I know it," said Carmel Raihala, a 34-year-old chiropractor in Green Bay, Wis. "The one thing I remember is every time it came on, I would always try to hurry and change the TV station or radio station. I guess when you're really young, there's always that fear, 'Is it real this time? Is something bad going to happen? Is this the one?' "
The EBS relies on a kind of "daisy chain" relay system, where one station receives the warning and then sends it on to the next station. That means if one station's equipment fails, others may not get the warning.
The new system depends more heavily on a "web approach," in which no station relies on just one source to receive the broadcast warnings. Digital tones like those sent by computer modems will activate computers at radio and TV stations and download emergency warnings.
"It will be just a couple of short buzzes, three short buzzes, then a long buzz, then a few more short buzzes," said Ray Staiger, deputy director of the North Dakota Division of Emergency Management.
The new system, approved two years ago by the FCC, is expected to be fully operational in 1998.
Mark Borchert, a technician for Mid-States Broadcasting Inc., which owns six radio stations in the Red River Valley, knows few listeners will miss the old EBS test.
"It is annoying," he said. "Even though that tone has been shortened to eight seconds, about half as long as it used to be, it is still annoying."
Tyree, who now lives in Fort Myers, Fla., might agree. "When we were kids, and this was before there were TV remotes, the argument always was who's going to get up and turn down the TV so we wouldn't all go deaf," she said.