Emergency Communications

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?


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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.


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In the last few weeks, the FCC has fined a number of broadcast stations for failing to keep up with their EAS obligations. In one case, a low power FM operator was fined $1750 for not having any EAS receiver installed at its station – and not knowing that it was required. LPFM stations must

In the last two days, several radio and television stations across the country had their station’s EAS systems hacked – and ended up broadcasting alerts dealing with zombie attacks that went out using the standard EAS systems and appeared or sounded to the viewer or listener to be real alerts. The FCC and others involved in the EAS program fear that other fake alerts have already been inserted into stations’ systems and may be broadcast soon – perhaps during events like the State of the Union address or other widely-viewed programs. To combat these issues, the FCC has issued the following advice to all stations:

All EAS Participants are required to take immediate action to secure their CAP EAS equipment, including resetting passwords, and ensuring CAP EAS equipment is secured behind properly configured firewalls and other defensive measures.  All CAP EAS equipment manufacturer models are included in this advisory.

 

All Broadcast and Cable EAS Participants are urged to take the following actions immediately

 

 

1.            EAS Participants must change all passwords on their CAP EAS equipment from default factory settings, including administrator and user accounts. 

2.            EAS Participants are also urged to ensure that their firewalls and other solutions are properly configured and up-to-date.

3.            EAS Participants are further advised to examine their CAP EAS equipment to ensure that no unauthorized alerts or messages have been set (queued) for future transmission.

4.            If you are unable to reset the default passwords on your equipment, you may consider disconnecting your device’s Ethernet connection until those settings have been updated.

5.            EAS Participants that have questions about securing their equipment should consult their equipment manufacturer.


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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

For one blog entry, I’ll depart from our usual discussion of legal issues. There is plenty of time to analyze the effect that last night’s election will have on the broadcast industry, and to discuss other issues of importance to broadcasters. Instead, as we approach the holiday season, I thought that I’d go into another direction. I’ve just returned from the NJ coast, where my family has a home that was partially flooded by Hurricane Sandy. While we had some property damage, it was nothing compared to the destruction I saw in other neighborhoods on the Jersey Shore. Seeing the number of people affected by the storm, and hearing the radio reports from locations up and down the coast where the destruction was far worse, made me think that I should talk a little about the good things that the broadcast and communications industry does, and how those in the industry can help take care of their own.

It has been great to see the many TV networks broadcasting programs with the specific purpose of promoting hurricane relief. And, in a post that we’ll put on the blog later today, the FCC has just made it easier for noncommercial broadcasters to contribute in these. Being on the ground at the NJ shore for a few days, without electricity other than what was provided by a small gas-powered generator, demonstrated to me the power and importance of portable media – including radio. Throughout my weekend at the shore, we could get news and entertainment from a battery-powered radio and the radio in our car. Together with tidbits of news from Facebook posts, a local list-serve and the few other sites that we could get on our mobile phones (for as long as the phones stayed charged) in an area where the mobile networks were often slow due to the high demand for wireless service as the storm had ruined many landline connections  – these were our links to the outside world. Radio kept going, providing updates of all that was going on in the area. One local radio station was particularly noteworthy, as it was operating even though it did not have operating phones or email access. Yet it continued to broadcast, conveying information as to how people could help each other. That information was collected from people posting on the station’s Twitter feed. The station truly showed how convergence of electronic and broadcast media can really work well together. 


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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.


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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.


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