The FCC has scheduled a Summit on the Emergency Alert System ("EAS"), to be held on May 19. The EAS system is the alert system used by broadcasters to pass on emergency information from government officials to their listeners. EAS replaced the Emergency Broadcast System ("EBS") and was intended to be a more reliable substitute for the system originally adopted during the Cold War to convey a Presidential message about a nuclear attack or similar emergency to the entire country. Over the years, the system has adapted to include information about local emergencies and "amber alerts" about the kidnapping or disappearance of children. However, especially since 9-11 and some of the hurricanes in the South, questions have been raised about the effectiveness of the system, and means to make the distribution of emergency information more reliable and efficient have been sought. The FCC currently has a rulemaking pending to determine ways in which that system can be made more efficient – a question sure to be addressed at the Summit.
In the current proceeding on reforming the EAS system, one of the questions that has been asked is how the system should be activated for non-Federal emergencies. Obviously, the President can still activate the system for a national emergency, but how alerts about local emergencies are initiated is one of the more controversial issues in the proceeding. Currently, there is no uniform system. Instead, each state’s system may have different points from which an alert can be initiated. Concerns have been raised that if the ability to initiate an alert is too broadly distributed, alerts may be initiated haphazardly, and if too many alerts are issued, the system will lose its impact and other important programming may be preempted unnecessarily. Thus, proposals have been made that the alerts should be initiated only by a state’s Governor or his or her specifically designated representative.
Issues to be discussed at the Summit include how the state and Federal emergency communications systems should interact. Also to be discussed is how to make the system more reliable. One issue now is that the system relies on a "daisy-chain" of stations – one station passing on the alert to the next one down the line. Concerns exist as to how the alert will be delivered if an intermediate link in the chain somehow fails. Satellite connections and other communications technologies are among the considerations – some states having already implemented such systems.
In addition to the broadcast alerts, the Commission has been working to expand the reach of its emergency notification systems into other media. Quite some time ago, the Commission adopted rules for extending the alert system to satellite-delivered media. Earlier this month, rules were also adopted to provide emergency alerts to mobile devices. These developments should be monitored so that communications companies are current on their obligations to delver emergency alerts should the occasion arise.