by Bennett Z. Kobb, KC5CW
The broadcast had that mechanical sound one associates with the spy-and-numbers stations on HF. But this one seemed all the more eerie to me because it was on 179 kHz, loud and distortion- free. Time ticks in the background, and a continuous announcement: "Good evening. This is station WGU-20. Eastern Standard Time nineteen hours, ten minutes, ten seconds. Good evening. This is station WGU-20. Eastern Standard Time nineteen hours, ten minutes, twenty seconds. Good evening. ..." No schedule, purpose, address or other information ever was announced. After midnight it switched to "Good morning."
I recognized the callsign as typical of federal government stations, and occasionally saw it show up in logs in various monitoring publications. What I had heard was a test transmission from an RF zombie, a relic of an elaborate, lost scheme to use longwave to warn the public of nuclear attack.
The station's QSL card appeared a few times in radio newsletters. It read: QSL Defense Civil Preparedness Agency / Radio Station WGU 20 / 179 Kilohertz / 1st 50 kW / All Solid State AM Transmitter / Chase, Maryland. What grabbed me was the illustration on the card: A silhouette of gallant Paul Revere on horseback, waving his hat, alongside a transmitting tower; and the initials DIDS.
I knew that the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency is now known as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It is responsible for federal assistance in emergencies such as natural or man-made disasters or defense-related incidents. A visit to the FEMA library in downtown Washington revealed more about DIDS and WGU-20.
DIDS stood for Decision Information Distribution System. A vast network of LF broadcast and feeder stations, DIDS was supposed to deliver audio messages directly to the public within 30 seconds after activation. In case of attack, DIDS was supposed to save 10-17 million additional lives in its initial deployment (by 1979), and as many as 27 million more if developed further.
Other systems exist. The CONELRAD (CONtrol of ELectromagnetic RADiation) procedure of the 1960s required radio stations to broadcast special announcements, turn on and off, and vary their schedules. This was supposed to warn the public while confusing missiles that might home in on broadcast signals. CONELRAD was eventually scuttled when targeting methods became more sophisticated.
NAWAS, the National Warning System, is a sometimes noisy, partyline telephone that connects federal authorities with state and local emergency centers. It is still in use today. The Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) uses the press wires and major networks to distribute warnings over radio and TV. The annoying two-tone EBS signal, intended to trigger special receivers in broadcast stations themselves, elicits a Pavlovian "change the channel" response in almost anyone who hears it.[ 1 ]
DIDS' creators in the Pentagon regarded these systems as prone to human error and delay. DIDS was envisioned as an automatic, fool- and spoof-proof supersystem that could switch on sirens across the country and convey information to officials via RTTY. DIDS' unique selling proposition, however, was that it would actually speak to citizens in their cars and directly in their homes, even waking each family from sleep.
WGU-20 was built for $2 million in 1973 as the prototype of ten DIDS "distribution stations". These were to operate 50 kW at 167, 179 and 191 kHz with 700-foot towers. Besides the Maryland site, candidate sites for distribution stations were Maynard, MA; Mount Joy, PA; Gray, ME; Morristown, TN; Starke or Chiefland, FL; Mazomanie, WI; Carthage, Marshal, or Seagoville, TX; Alcova or Riverton, WY; Mendota or Selma, CA; Winslow, AZ; Hermiston, OR; and Wallula, WA.
These ten stations were to cover the 48 contiguous states. Alaska and Hawaii were to have special, unspecified arrangements. All DIDS stations would be partially below ground level and protected against blast and electromagnetic pulse effects.
The distribution stations would be activated by two "control stations" at 61.15 kHz, in Ault, CO and Cambridge, KS. These two stations would run 200 kW from 1,260-foot towers. Federal authorities would send the "go" signal by microwave and landline to the control stations. The ten distribution stations would then sign on and play taped messages to the public.
But most Americans do not own longwave receivers. "The acquisition of home warning receivers would be a voluntary decision on the part of the individual citizen," says one DIDS manual. Therefore, the federal government had to persuade manufacturers to market and the public to buy radios whose sole programming would consist of either tests or actual Armageddon.
This was hardly a prescription for an attractive consumer product. Nevertheless, DCPA commissioned Westinghouse to develop prototype units. One of them would attach to, or be installed inside, a TV set. If the TV was turned off when DIDS was activated, the DIDS circuit would deliver the message at "greater-than-normal volume" through the TV speaker to wake sleepers. The basic home receiver looked like any attractive radio for the kitchen. There was even a converter to attach to your car radio.
Marketing DIDS to the public required some kind of user-friendly package. Paul Revere and the military-sounding "Decision Information Distribution System" were adopted for internal use. But Mr. and Mrs. America required a homey, more comfortable logo. Pentagon semioticians hit on Public Emergency Radio (PER) and PERKI, its puppy mascot, as the soft sell for Nuke Radio.
Appropriately enough, the dog in the logo appears to have just awakened and is still confused. A vigilant watchdog he isn't. Behind PERKI is a family briskly walking to a country home. This Leave It to Beaver imagery probably came from the same government department that gave us the "duck and cover" films and jingles of the 50s (brilliantly portrayed in the movie ATOMIC CAFE).
In case PERKI didn't warm Americans' hearts, military planners came up with a more persuasive hook. The Safeguard antiballistic missile system was designed to connect directly to DIDS. The Safeguard radar network could continuously track the flight paths of incoming enemy missiles. While the network dispatched ABMs to destroy the enemy missiles at high altitudes, its computers would automatically and instantaneously furnish a prediction to DIDS as to where an enemy warhead would land and explode if it was not successfully intercepted by an ABM. Your PER radio would then tell you exactly which area to "avoid." Sure beats morning traffic reports!
Despite their obvious utility and sure-fire marketing prospects, DIDS, PERKI and the Radio Paul Revere eventually ended at the bureaucratic equivalent of a swapfest table. According to a letter from John Sullivan, FEMA telecommunications chief, the system "would have proved very costly to build, maintain and operate the number of simulcast stations required to blanket the continental U.S."
"Secondly, it would have been a strictly one-way system. With all the information going down and nothing coming back up the line, it would not have been possible to obtain the necessary status reports, damage assessments, required actions, etc. Lastly, due to budget constraints, funding was discontinued."
"Regarding WGU-20, the station has been deactivated, equipment removed and sold, and the land lease terminated. At this time there are no plans to pursue the program further."[ 2 ]
Still, in my nightmare, I tune to 179 kHz and hear, "Good morning. This is not a test."
1. EBS was later changed to EAS, the Emergency Alert System, using data transmission and a mercifully shorter Attention Signal.
At this writing, EAS is enmeshed in a patent dispute, with the FCC requiring all broadcasters to use EAS and the apparent patent holder requiring license fees from all broadcasters.
EAS failed miserably at the FCC's ceremonial public unveiling of the system, though this fact was underreported. No actual EAS messages were successfully transmitted and received at the event. Instead, exhibiting vendors merely activated a cacophony of sirens and lights by manually switching them on.
2. I dimly recall somewhere in the literature that NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) was declared the successor to DIDS.
In some respects NWR is similar to DIDS. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses NWR to broadcast warning messages directly to the public in the VHF band.
NWR officials perennially, if privately, complain that not enough NWR receivers are being sold. Radio Shack is probably the most visible NWR receiver supplier. Thunder Eagle (www. thuneagle.com) of Vienna, Va. makes a very sophisticated NWR receiver for use by emergency authorities.
Vice President Al Gore has declared a desire to make NWR receivers ubiquitous in American homes.
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