The FCC has proposed amending its rules governing the Emergency Alert System (EAS) in order to test and improve the effectiveness of the system.  In particular, the Commission has proposed that all EAS participants be required to join in a nationwide test — to be scheduled by the FCC in consultation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — to ensure that the system will function properly to inform the public in the event of a national crisis.  The FCC proposes to implement the national test on a yearly basis and seeks comment on the specific language of the proposed rule.  A copy of the Commission’s Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) was recently published in the Federal Register establishing the deadline for Comments on the proposed rules as March 1, 2010, with Reply Comments due on or before March 30, 2010.

In issuing its NPRM, available here, the Commission acknowledged the shortcomings of the current rules and its belief that a national test — and the data gathered from such a test — is critical to ensuring consistency and reliability in a system that has actually never been used to deliver a national Presidential alert.  Under the current system, an EAS message is initiated, which is then passed via specially encoded messages to a broadcast-based transmission network, and then on to broadcast stations, cable operators, and other EAS participants in a daisy-chain distribution to the final end users, i.e., the public who is listening, watching, or reading, on radio, television, cable, or other services.  This daisy-chain structure leaves the system, in the Commission’s estimation, vulnerable to a significant failure if the message distribution is severed or delayed at any one point.  By proposing an annual national test, the Commission seeks to test the system in an organized, controlled manner, gather data from the EAS participants, and apply what is learned.  Under the Commission’s proposed rule, the annual test would replace one of the required monthly tests and participants would have at least two months advance notice of the nationwide test.  EAS participants would be required to log the test results of the test and provide information on the results to the Commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau within 30 days of the test.  The Commission seeks input on the proposed rule, including whether once a year is sufficient, and what the costs would be attendant to the testing and reporting.

The NPRM suggests that the following test-related diagnostic information would be provided by the EAS participants for each alert received from each message source monitored at the time of the national test:  (1) whether they received the alert message during the designated test; (2) whether they retransmitted the alert; and (3) if they were not able to receive and/or transmit the alert, their ‘best effort’ diagnostic analysis regarding the cause or causes for such failure.  In addition, the Commission would require participants to provide information regarding the station, date and time of the message and relay, information on the source of the message, and make and model number of they EAS equipment that they utilized.  The Commission proposes to make the information publicly available, but seeks input on whether it would be more appropriate to limit availability to other authorized governmental agencies. 

The final issue the NPRM raises is the fact that different encoder/decoder manufacturers may program their devices to receive and transmit emergency alert notices differently, which could impact the proper relay of an emergency message.  The Commission seeks input on the issue and what costs would be involved or options available to ensure that a legitimate emergency alert notification is passed along the network. 

The Commission has stated that it intends to "move quickly to adopt any and all necessary rule changes to ensure that the Commission and other federal, state, local, and non-governmental EAS stakeholders have the necessary diagnostic tools to evaluate EAS performance and readiness nationwide."  So interested parties should similarly act with alacrity to get comments in by March 1st (or reply comments by March 30th) to inform the Commission’s rule making process.  Comments can be submitted in paper or through the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System