With Hurricane Isaac soon to make landfall on the Gulf Coast, the FCC is issuing its usual reminders to broadcasters and other communications facilities in areas that are likely to be affected by the storm. It has today issued two public notices. The first Public Notice reminds video providers – particularly television stations, but other video providers as well – that they need to present visually emergency information that they may be conveying verbally on the air so that those that are hearing impaired have access to that information, and similarly that information that is provided visually (e.g. through a crawl), be also provided aurally, or at least alert tones must be used to put the visually-impaired on notice of the fact that emergency information is running on the station. A second public notice tells communications users that they can use the FCC’s Disaster Information Reporting System ("DIRS") to notify the FCC about service outages that may be caused by the storm
The information about making emergency information accessible is one that is commonly issued by the FCC (see our stories here and here about past warnings). The FCC reminds video providers that emergency information must be made available to those with hearing or visual impairments. For those who are hearing impaired, information must either be provided by closed caption, or by some other means that does not block the closed caption information. Even where a station is exempt from captioning a story – as many are in the case of breaking news – a visual element must still be provided for all audio information given on the air about "critical details regarding the emergency and how to respond to the emergency." So stations should do open captions or have their on-air announcers use whiteboards or other means to visually convey the emergency information that they are providing in their commentary. In the past, big fines have followed from stations that have not provided such information visually (see our post here), and the FCC has made the complaint process easier in recent years, as highlighted by today’s Public Notice.
Those who are visually impaired must also be accommodated. While it probably will be less frequent that a station will provide information visually that is not also conveyed in words, that situation does arise when emergency information comes through captioning or crawls, rather than in normal programs. In such cases, the station must broadcast alert tones to alert those who may be visually impaired that emergency information is on the screen, so that they can access that information in some other way.
The FCC also reminded communications providers in certain Gulf counties that they can use DIRS to update the FCC as to their operational status. We had experience during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with the FCC assisting broadcast stations in maintaining their operations – in one case seemingly assisting in getting clearance for a fuel truck to enter the stricken area to provide fuel to a station’s emergency generators, when previous attempts to get to the area had been blocked by emergency officials. While there are never any guarantees in such situations, in the event of severe storm, stations can use all the help that they can get, so DIRS may be worth consideration.