He built his first crude radio station as a teenager and by age 14 was working at a Columbus radio station, the beginning of a 52-year career as a technician at radio and TV stations, a utility company and the state of Tennessee, a job that included installing surveillance devices for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations.
But for about 45 minutes one Saturday morning 50 years ago, Rusty Wallace had to consider the very real possibility that both his career — not to mention his life — might be over and that he was required to break the news to his listeners who shared the same fate.
“Here I am, a 19-year-old kid, staring at a piece of paper that might be the end of the world and not knowing what I should do,” Wallace recalled.
For Wallace, the morning of Feb. 20, 1971, was much like any other Saturday morning. Although he was still in his teens, Wallace had been working at WACR radio station in Columbus for five years and was accustomed to running the station alone, not uncommon at small stations like WACR.
“Sign-on was at sun-up, which at that time of year would have been about 6:45,” Wallace recalled. “On Saturday mornings, we had a local preacher who had a show from 8:30 to 9 and I always used that time to have my breakfast. At 8:33 every Saturday, they sent over an emergency system test over the teletype machine. Usually, there would be four of five bells to let you know the alert was coming over. Radio stations were required to log the alert and keep it on file for two years.”At 8:33, Wallace heard the bells. But something was different.
“It was 10 bells, which I’d never heard before,” Wallace said. “I think the only other time 10 bells came across the teletype was when President Kennedy was assassinated.”
Wallace wasn’t alarmed, at least not initially.
“I was sitting there eating my breakfast and thinking something’s wrong with the teletype machine,” he said.
But when he went to collect the teletype message, he quickly realized it wasn’t a teletype machine malfunction.
The Emergency Broadcast System was initiated in 1951 — a response to the Cold War threats of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union — as a way to use TV and radio stations to broadcast information about emergencies to the American people.
If a national-scale emergency were to occur, an emergency alert would go to the entire nation from the National Warning Center inside NORAD, the nation’s aerospace defense command center in Colorado. Once the EBS was activated, the president could speak to the entire nation within 10 minutes.
The system used code words to distinguish between the weekly tests and a real emergency.
To Wallace’s horror, the code word sent in the teletype message indicated a real emergency. Once the authenticator word was verified, the station was supposed to remove a printed text from a red envelope and read it over the air.
After broadcasting the message, all but a select group of powerful stations were required to go off the air to prevent Russian aircraft flying over the U.S. from using radio signals to navigate.
Wallace knew what he had to do.
“But it just didn’t feel right,” he said. “It just seemed like something funny was going on.”
As the preacher’s program was winding down, Wallace called WCBI radio — another Columbus-based station — to see how they were handling the situation.
“We just went back and forth. What do you make of it? I don’t know. I don’t have any other information coming in, do you? No? You would think there would be something on the teletype from AP or UPI telling us what’s going on. If you read this thing, it’s going to cause a panic.”
What should they do?
That was a question radio and TV stations were struggling with all over the country.
Wallace said the conversation went on. By this time, the preacher’s program had ended and he was putting on records and commercials. As the station resumed the live broadcast, Wallace was still trying to figure out if he should follow protocol by announcing the message and signing off.
“We were talking the whole time,” Wallace said. “Finally, I told him, look, It’s been 45 minutes. Columbus Air Force Base has to be a target. If it was a nuclear attack, we’d be dead by now.”
Neither Wallace nor WCBI read the message or signed off, but many other stations throughout the nation followed the procedure.
“About two-thirds of the stations never sent the message, but some did,” Wallace said.
The panic was instantaneous in those markets that broadcast the emergency.
Frantic listeners called their local stations to find out what was going on. Others huddled around TV sets, fearing the worst. At the time, the Vietnam War was raging. Had the United States’ ongoing battle against Communism finally resulted in nuclear war?
Meanwhile, confused authorities struggled to make sense of what was happening. When the warning center realized what it had done, employees scrambled for the code word they needed to stop the broadcasts. They couldn’t find it. They tried to cancel the broadcast six times. Each time, they failed.
Finally, more than 40 minutes after the first transmission, the Office of Civil Defense sent a cancellation message with the right code word to broadcasters. The first major live test, and failure, of the Emergency Broadcast System was over. Programming resumed and the American people breathed a sigh of relief.
So did Wallace.
“I didn’t know how many people were listening, but I was worried people might be driving around listening to the station and having a heart attack or crash into a tree, maybe even people committing suicide,” he said.
“The whole time, I just had this feeling it was a mistake. And, thankfully, it turned out I was right. Like I said, it was a heckuva situation to be in for a 19-year-old kid.”
Or anyone else, for that matter. Emergency officials implemented changes to the system, including measures to remove the prospects of human error, something that remains a feature of the nation’s emergency broadcast system broadcast listeners still hear today.
The screeching sounds you hear during Emergency Alert System broadcast tests? The noises that sound like information being transmitted over a modem? The sounds tell stations what kind of situation is in progress and whether the transmission is a test or a true alarm. If the world hadn’t braced for an unknown terror in 1971, those failsafes might never have been implemented.
Wallace said after the message cancelling the emergency ended, he went on about his day.
“Really, I didn’t think anything about it,” he said.
Nobody in Columbus was plunged into panic that Saturday morning. For Wallace, it was one of those rare times when doing nothing was the right thing to do.
“It turned out to be an interesting story, but only an interesting story,” said Wallace, 70, who now lives in Memphis. “It could have turned out a lot different.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]