accessibility of emergency information

With Hurricane Florence about to hit the East Coast, broadcasters are well reminded of their obligations with respect to the airing of emergency information. Broadcasters may also want to consider the benefits that the FCC can offer in an emergency. While the FCC yesterday announced the postponement of its test of DIRS, the Disaster Information Reporting System, broadcasters may want to consider quickly getting familiar with this system. The voluntary system allows stations in the area affected by any disaster to report on the status of their operations. In the past, FCC officials have assisted stations that were off-the-air or operating with emergency facilities in order to direct resources (like gas trucks to fuel emergency generators) to these stations so that they could continue to provide emergency information. Registering in DIRS can facilitate getting the information about your station’s status to the FCC. More information is available on the FCC’s website, here. [Update, 9/11/2018, 1:30 PM the FCC just released a Public Notice providing contact information in various FCC Bureaus for licensees to contact about service outages, STA filings and their needs to resume service to the public].

But emergencies also impose regulatory obligations on broadcasters – particularly TV broadcasters. Last year, the issued a FCC Public Notice reminding all video programmers of the importance of making emergency information accessible to all viewers. The FCC has just posted a link to a notice about a disaster preparedness webinar it will be conducting on September 27 for state and local government officials, and we would not be surprised to see a new notice reminding broadcasters of their emergency obligations in the coming days. Last year’s notice serves as a good refresher on all of the obligations of video programmers designed to make emergency information available to members of the viewing audience who may have auditory or visual impairments that may make this information harder to receive. The notice also reminded readers that they could file complaints against video programming distributors who do not follow the rules. Thus, TV broadcasters need to be extremely sensitive to all of these requirements.
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In an Order released Friday, The FCC gave TV broadcasters five more years to convert non-textual emergency information delivered to audiences outside of news programs into speech that is broadcast on station’s Secondary Audio Programming (“SAP”) channels, usually used for Spanish and other non-English translations of television programs. Broadcasters, as we have written before

With the recent hurricanes and last night’s tragedy in Las Vegas, the FCC Public Notice issued last week reminding all video programmers of the importance of making emergency information accessible to all viewers seems very timely. The public notice serves as a good refresher on all of the obligations of video programmers designed to make emergency information available to members of the viewing audience who may have auditory or visual impairments that may make this information harder to receive. As the FCC also reminds readers of its notice of the ways in which to file complaints against video programming distributors who do not follow the rules, TV broadcasters need to be extremely sensitive to all of these requirements.

What are these obligations? These are some of the obligations highlighted by the FCC’s reminder:

  • For persons who are visually impaired, rules require that emergency information that is visually provided in a newscast also be aurally described in the main audio channel of the station.
  • When emergency information is provided outside of a newscast (e.g. in a crawl during entertainment programming), that information must be accompanied by an aural tone and then an audio version of the emergency information must be broadcast on a secondary audio channel (SAP channel) of a TV station at least twice. See our articles here, here and here about this obligation.
  • For persons who are deaf or hard of hearing, the Commission requires that emergency information provided in the audio portion of a broadcast also be presented visually, through methods including captioning, crawls or scrolls that do not block any emergency information provided through other visual means (like other captions or crawls).
  • For stations that are permitted to use electronic newsroom technique (ENT) captions, where ENT does not provide captions for breaking news and emergency alerts, stations must make emergency information available through some other visual means. See our post here on this obligation.
  • The FCC suggests, but does not require, that stations make emergency information available through multiple means (maps, charts, and other visual information) and in plain language, so that all viewers can understand the nature of any emergency.


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The FCC released an order last week giving TV stations an additional 18 months to comply with a requirement that emergency information conveyed to the TV audience during non-news programming in a visual or graphical manner (e.g. on-screen weather maps during entertainment programming) be converted to audio that is broadcast on the TV station’s SAP

With the approach of Hurricane Matthew to the coast of the southeast United States, emergency communications is a high priority for all media outlets. Emergency communications have also been a hot issue at the FCC – with 3 notices in the last week dealing with this important subject. One notice was to provide emergency contact information at the FCC which will be available 24 hours a day during the Hurricane for any assistance that the agency can provide. A second notice was a reminder of how broadcasters (particularly television broadcasters) need to make emergency information accessible. Information that is provided through spoken word must also be made available visually to the hearing impaired, and information that is presented visually must be provided aurally to those who are blind. The third notice asks for comments on the possible extension of time for the waiver of the obligation that TV broadcasters convert certain emergency information presented visually on-screen into audio on a SAP channel for those that are blind or otherwise visually impaired.

The 24-hour hotline (FCC information here) is a service that the FCC instituted many years ago during similar emergencies to help any licensed communications service to the extent possible. In some cases, the response may simply be an immediate response to a request for a temporary authorization to maintain service during the emergency. During Hurricane Katrina, I was asked by a client to talk to people manning the FCC’s emergency number about helping get a fuel truck bringing gasoline to power auxiliary generators at broadcast stations past FEMA roadblocks keeping traffic out of the worst-hit area. I don’t know if the call to the FCC did it, but the truck did get the authorization to enter the restricted area and the station was able to keep operating. So use this number if needed during the emergency.
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