emergency alert system

On the anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001, we should all be thankful for the work of the nation’s first responders. Broadcasters and other members of the electronic communications industries play a part in the response to any emergency – including through their participation in the Emergency Alert System (EAS). In recent weeks, the FCC has been aggressively prosecuting parties who it has found to have transmitted false or misleading EAS alerts. This was exhibited this week through the Notice of Apparent Liability issued to CBS for an altered and shortened version of the EAS tones used in the background of a “Young Sheldon” episode, leading to a $272,000 proposed fine. Consent decrees were announced two weeks ago with broadcasters and cable programmers for similar violations (see FCC notices here, here, here and here), with payments to the US Treasury reaching $395,000. These follow past cases that we have written about here, here, here, here, and here, where fines have exceeded $1 million. The CBS case raised many interesting issues that have received comment elsewhere in recent days, including the First Amendment implications of restrictions on the use of EAS tones in programming, and whether an altered tone in the background of an entertainment program, where audiences would seemingly realize there was no actual emergency, should really be the subject of an enforcement action. But the question that has not received much attention is one raised by the FCC’s Enforcement Advisory released last month addressing the improper use of EAS alert tones and the Wireless Emergency Alert tones used by wireless carriers (known as WEA alerts), and simulations of those tones. That advisory raises questions of just how far the FCC’s jurisdiction in this area goes – could it reach beyond the broadcasters and cable programmers to which it has already been applied and extend to online programming services?

This question arises because the FCC’s Enforcement Advisory addresses not only EAS tones used by broadcasters and cable systems, but also the WEA alert tones voluntarily deployed by most wireless providers. The advisory makes clear that the use of either EAS or WEA tones without a real emergency is a violation of the FCC rules. The Advisory states:

The use of simulated or actual EAS codes or the EAS or WEA Attention Signals (which are composed of two tones transmitted simultaneously), for nonauthorized purposes—such as commercial or entertainment purposes—can confuse people or lead to “alert fatigue,” whereby the public becomes desensitized to the alerts, leading people to ignore potentially life-saving warnings and information.

The FCC goes on to state:

the use of the WEA common audio attention signal, or a recording or simulation thereof, in any circumstance other than in an actual National, State or Local Area emergency, authorized test, or except as designed and used for PSAs by federal, state, local, tribal and territorial entities, is strictly prohibited.
Continue Reading How Far Does the FCC Authority Over False EAS Alerts Go? Could Online Programming be Subject to its Reach?

Perhaps Sunday’s anniversary of Pearl Harbor made the FCC want to make this week one which concentrated on emergency communications issues, or perhaps it is just a coincidence.  But the FCC has been active in the past 7 days dealing with emergency communications related items for broadcasters.  On Wednesday, it issued a consent decree by which a broadcaster agreed to a $46,000 fine for the use of EAS tones in a commercial message. This decision follows on the heels of an investigatory letter sent to a satellite radio programmer about the apparent use of a simulated EAS tone in a commercial message when, of course, there was no real emergency.   On Monday, there were two fines for non-operational EAS receivers and EAS recordkeeping failures.  At the end of last week, comments were filed in an FCC proceeding looking at the retransmission of EAS alerts in non-emergency situations, such as when a tone is included in programming on a station, and what can be done to avoid those alerts being sent throughout the system.  Comments are also due by the end of the month on suggested best practices on security for the EAS system, in light of the many issues that have arisen with the hacking of EAS receivers.  Here is a quick look at each of these issues.

The two most recent decisions highlight the severity with which the FCC is treating the use of EAS tones – real or simulated – in non-emergency programming.  We have written about past cases where the FCC has issued very substantial fines for the use of such tones in nonemergency situations, here and here.  In the decision released on Wednesday, the licensee of a Michigan radio station admitted to having broadcast ads for a storm-chasing tour which contained the EAS warning tones.  The National Weather Service received complaints, and in turn filed a complaint with the FCC.  The Consent Decree does not provide much more information, but to indicate that the commercial containing the EAS tones was broadcast on only a single day.  A $46,000 fine for a one-day violation demonstrates the gravity with which the FCC views these violations.  And it is a sense of importance that attaches not just to licensees, but to programmers as well.
Continue Reading A Week of Emergency Alert System Actions at the FCC – Fines Including One for $46,000 for EAS Tones in a Commercial, and Reviews of Best Practices for the System

In 2011, the FCC conducted the first-ever nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System – commonly known as EAS (see our article here about the FCC’s report on the results of that test). While the system was originally created to convey Presidential alerts to the nation, it has never been used for that purpose and, until the nationwide test, it had never even been tested. Instead, EAS has most commonly been used for local emergencies like weather alerts and, in recent years, Amber Alerts for missing or abducted children. In the Public Notice released this week, the Commission asked for comments on a number of issues uncovered during the nationwide test, which in many ways illustrated how far the EAS system has evolved from its original purpose.

The issues on which comments are sought are principally technical issues of system design, such as whether the time codes in the EAS headers work the same on all EAS hardware, or whether these codes resulted in tests running at different times on different stations.  Apparently, some stations immediately broadcast the alert when received, and others delayed it until the time specified in the codes indicated that it should be run (3 minutes after the alert was sent out). The Commission also noted that there is no specific code in the standard alert codes for a nationwide alert. Similarly, there is no “location code” for a nationwide alert, as all of the location codes (which specify the geographic area where the alert is targeted), have been set up on a state-wide or more localized basis for the weather alerts and other similar localized emergencies for which the system is regularly used. These would all seem like easy things to fix – but are they?


Continue Reading FCC Seeks Comments on Technical Details of Nationwide EAS Test – Preparing for the Next Test?

Almost a year and a half ago, the FCC held its first ever test of the EAS system designed to alert the country in the event of a nationwide emergency. On Friday, the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau issued a report on the results of the test. While there have been many articles in the trade press reporting on some of the findings of the Bureau, few have focused on one footnote indicating that many EAS participants – including some broadcasters and cable systems – never bothered to file their reports as to the results of their participation in the tests. The Bureau notes that the identity of these broadcasters will be turned over the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau for further action – potentially fines for their failures to report on the results of the test (we warned that this might be a consequence of the failure to file a report of the results of the test in our article here).  Broadcasters should watch for further action from the Enforcement Bureau at some point in the future.

The Report indicated that approximately 83% of all broadcasters who reported to the FCC had received the test. However, the FCC received reports from only about 13,787 stations.  According to the FCC’s tabulation of the number of broadcast stations in the US, as released in another FCC report last week, there are approximately 15,256 radio stations and 1781 TV stations in the United States. This could mean that there are a substantial number of broadcast stations that did not report the results of the nationwide test. The Commission apparently did not try to determine if the results achieved by those nonresponsive stations were different than the results of those who reported to the FCC.  One might assume that these stations, which somehow missed all the warnings about the need to file with the FCC the results of the tests, probably also missed instructions about how to comply with the EAS rules and thus were probably less likely to have fully operating EAS systems. So there is concern that the report may even understate the shortcomings of the nationwide test.


Continue Reading FCC Issues Report on Nationwide EAS Test And Refers to the Enforcement Bureau Stations That Did Not Submit the Results of the Test – Could Fines Follow?

With very limited exceptions, all broadcast stations are required to participate in Emergency Alert System, and to transmit any alerts that they may receive during their hours of operation. The FCC has just proposed to issue an $8000 fine to a station that allegedly had a working EAS receiver  (unlike some of the stations we have

There has been much focus on emergency communications recently, with the East Coast earthquake re-igniting the debate over FM-enabled mobile phones, and with Hurricane Irene forcing stations to gear up for emergency coverage in the coming days.  But even without these unusual events, the emergency communications world has been much in the news, given the current requirement for broadcast stations to be ready for the new Common Alerting Protocol ("CAP"), an Internet-based alerting system, by the end of September, and with the first-ever test of the National EAS system scheduled for November.  The CAP conversion date has recently been the subject of debate in a number of FCC filings – and there seems like a good chance that the September 30 deadline will be delayed – if for no other reason than the fact that the FCC has yet to adopt final rules for the equipment required for such compliance.  The National Test, however, should go on as scheduled.  More on all of these subjects below.

First, the coming hurricane should prompt stations to be ready for potential emergency operations.  The FCC in the past has publicized its Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS).  Stations can voluntarily register with DIRS to give the FCC a contact person to assess damage after the storm, and to notify the FCC of the need for any aide that the Commission might be able to provide.  During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I was personally involved in discussions with FCC personnel who coordinated with other government agencies to get clearance for diesel tanker trucks to gain access to restricted area to deliver fuel to a client’s radio station that was still operational (on generator power) providing emergency information to Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. The FCC personnel can be of great assistance in such situations, so DIRS registrations may be worth considering.  The FCC’s website also provides helpful information about planning for disaster recovery  and about hurricanes specifically.  FCC emergency contact information is also on their site.


Continue Reading Hurricanes and Earthquakes – Emergency Communications In the Spotlight With CAP Conversion and National EAS Test Coming Soon (Though, For CAP, Maybe Not As Soon As We Thought)

The FCC’s recent Notice of Proposed Rule Making outlining changes to the FCC’s Part 11 Rules governing the Emergency Alert System ("EAS") was published in the Federal Register today.  Today’s publication establishes the timing for submitting Comments in this proceeding.  Comments will be due by July 20, with Reply Comments due by August 4th.  By its