News | Sept. 25, 2009

'Giant Voice' alerts base to attacks and natural disasters

By Pacifica Chehy Capital Flyer staff writer

Every morning at 7 a.m. reveille is sounded and the national anthem is played at retreat in the late afternoon at 5 p.m. on Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

Every Wednesday like clockwork a base-wide announcement is heard, "This is a test. This is a test of the Giant Voice System. This is only a test." Who exactly is the 'Giant Voice,' and what is the system for?

"There isn't one person who is the Giant Voice," explained Tech. Sgt. Joseph Brady, NCO in charge of console operations for the Andrews Regional Command Post and 316th Wing Command Post. "In fact, the 113th Wing (D.C. Air National Guard) uses the system as well."

While a few base residents may view the Giant Voice as a nuisance, Sergeant Brady said the system should be viewed as a tool. The command post, the primary command and control node for both the Air Force National Capital Region and the president's base, uses the Giant Voice for mass alert, should the base come under threat of attack or natural disaster. Command post controllers provide situational awareness to the important NCR power projection platform that is Andrews.

"One of the biggest misconceptions about the system is that you can adjust the volume - you can't. A large part of the variation in volume comes from wind direction which impacts the overall sound you hear coming over the Giant Voice - we don't control that," Sergeant Brady explained.

A radio frequency is sent base wide to the Giant Voice speakers strategically placed around the base, which is part of the reason why an echo may be heard when the national anthem is played.

In the case of war, base residents will hear three to five-minute wavering tones, like what is heard in the old-time war movies with a high pitch that then drops to a lower tone and back.

During peacetime, but under threat of severe weather, a mass notification is made to take shelter with a steady tone. Because the surrounding community immediately outside the gates can hear the Giant Voice, as well, lightning warnings are not sounded at Andrews as not to alarm non-military personnel.

"The warning system was working almost too well in that case," said Sergeant Brady. "The decision was made to only sound the Giant Voice if there was severe weather - like a tornado or hurricane - or if the base is under attack. The bottom line is, if you hear the Giant Voice and you do not hear 'This is a test' or 'Exercise, exercise, exercise,' you need to get indoors or take shelter immediately."

The summer of 2008 was a prime example of how the Giant Voice was used to alert Andrews about severe weather.

"We used the Giant Voice quite a few times last summer - especially with regard to tornado warnings. That's what we're here for - for overall base safety," he said.

Chief Master Sgt. Lee Lopez, Andrews Regional Command Post chief, agreed. "Base residents need to keep in mind that the Giant Voice is their friend; the base residents not only get to experience military tradition everyday with Reveille and Retreat, but they are kept informed when a possible disaster looms. The Giant Voice is not here to annoy - it is here to alert. It is our way of keeping you and the entire base safe."