With Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the US East Coast, the FCC has issued reminders to consumers and communications companies about what to do in areas affected by the storm. Late Friday, it issued two public notices. The first public notice advised broadcasters and other communications companies that the FCC will be available 24-7 over the weekend and during the storm to answer calls about service outages, to assist where possible in restoring any lost service, and to issue emergency authorizations for temporary facilities. As we have written before, the FCC has been helpful in past disasters – seemingly able to bridge bureaucratic barriers that might otherwise delay the restoration of communications services. The second public notice was directed to consumers, telling them to try a variety of means to communicate if one service is not working, suggesting text messages if mobile networks are affected by the storm, and urging that communications be kept short and limited to immediate needs so as not to overload any communications systems.
The FCC did not issue another notice that is usually issued in these circumstances, but we will remind television broadcasters and other video providers of their obligations to visually present any information that identifies an immediate threat or which conveys actionable information about an emergency to the public. This information was related to broadcasters in a Public Notice issued just before Hurricane Isaac reminding video providers – particularly television stations, but other video providers as well – that they need to visually present emergency information that they may be conveying verbally on the air so that the 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. It is important that video providers remember this obligation, as many complaints are filed with the FCC each year by groups who represent those with a disability, calling television stations to task for not meeting their captioning obligations.
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 usually 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." 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 the Public Notice issued just before Hurricane Isaac when it threatened the US this year.
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.
We hope that everyone stays safe in the storm, and that no one has any need to make use of the emergency communications channels that the FCC has provided.