There has been much focus on emergency communications recently, with the East Coast earthquake re-igniting the debate over FM-enabled mobile phones, and with Hurricane Irene forcing stations to gear up for emergency coverage in the coming days. But even without these unusual events, the emergency communications world has been much in the news, given the current requirement for broadcast stations to be ready for the new Common Alerting Protocol ("CAP"), an Internet-based alerting system, by the end of September, and with the first-ever test of the National EAS system scheduled for November. The CAP conversion date has recently been the subject of debate in a number of FCC filings – and there seems like a good chance that the September 30 deadline will be delayed – if for no other reason than the fact that the FCC has yet to adopt final rules for the equipment required for such compliance. The National Test, however, should go on as scheduled. More on all of these subjects below.
First, the coming hurricane should prompt stations to be ready for potential emergency operations. The FCC in the past has publicized its Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS). Stations can voluntarily register with DIRS to give the FCC a contact person to assess damage after the storm, and to notify the FCC of the need for any aide that the Commission might be able to provide. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I was personally involved in discussions with FCC personnel who coordinated with other government agencies to get clearance for diesel tanker trucks to gain access to restricted area to deliver fuel to a client’s radio station that was still operational (on generator power) providing emergency information to Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. The FCC personnel can be of great assistance in such situations, so DIRS registrations may be worth considering. The FCC’s website also provides helpful information about planning for disaster recovery and about hurricanes specifically. FCC emergency contact information is also on their site.
In thinking about emergencies, TV stations need to remember the requirements that they visually provide any information about an immediate emergency threatening discreet groups of viewers. In the heat of the moment, when rushing to get out information about a tornado that could be spun out of a storm or some other imminent catastrophe, station personnel may not think about their obligation to provide information visually to those who have a hearing impairment. But, whether through the use of captioning or even a white board, if you are telling viewers in a given area to take cover or any other specific action, or warning them about a specific threat to their safety – provide that information visually as well. For the visually impaired, you need to run an audible tone before any video-only caption that you may be running to provide an alert that emergency information is about to run. There are well-organized citizen’s groups who have been known to file complaints about stations who do not provide such information – so remember to provide it to avoid facing an FCC penalty because you did good work, but forgot to make sure that your good information was available to all segments of your audience.
Should there be damage to station facilities, the FCC is also good about giving temporary authority to stations to operate with emergency equipment or from unlicensed locations or with a different power than licensed. Look for other FCC emergency information to be publicized soon if Irene continues on her current track.
In the longer term, there are two notable events upcoming for the EAS system. The first is the conversion to CAP, delayed last year until September 30 of this year. However, as we wrote earlier this summer, the FCC is still considering specific rules governing the CAP system, and that proceeding raises a number of issues. One big issue for many rural stations has been the fact that the system needs an always-on, high-speed Internet connection to work – and some stations do not have access to such connections. Reply comments in that proceeding were only submitted at the beginning of this month, so the Commission has not yet completed its review of the issues. Because there are no rules, a number of broadcast groups have asked for a 180 day extension of the deadline. Even FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is developing the alerting system) has suggested that the FCC not penalize until early next year any station that is not fully CAP compliant. Only some equipment manufacturers have suggested that the September deadline be kept in place. We would look for some word from the FCC soon, and if we would have to bet, we’d expect to see some extension of the deadline in the cards (though one never knows for sure…)
The first nationwide test of the EAS system is also on the horizon – scheduled for November 9. This is not a test of the CAP system, but will use the traditional "daisy chain" alert that is passed from one station to another (a system that will remain in place after CAP implementation to provide redundancy in the system). The FCC just published more information about this test. Many states will be testing their systems before the nationwide test to ensure that systems are fully operational. Check your station’s facilities now, as there will be a post-test report filed with the FCC by all stations, and you don’t want to be a station that has to report that an avoidable problem that made your station miss the test.
Finally, there is the debate about whether mobile phones should be enabled to receive broadcast signals, especially in the time of emergency. The NAB has made much of the fact that cell phone reception in areas affected by this week’s earthquake were tied up for some time, while broadcasters were able to get information out to the public. Broadcasting obviously is designed to get a single message out to a mass audience, rather than to provide the one-to-one communication of a phone or even an IP-based system. Any attempt to require phones to legislatively mandate enabled FM chips in mobile devices is likely to continue to be vociferously opposed by the wireless and consumer electronics industries. But, as in the case of the earthquake, broadcasters (and Federal emergency managers – see the video here) should continue to get the word out of the importance of broadcasting in emergencies – so that consumer demand can drive the adoption of enabled radios in mobile devices.