Broadcasters will have 24-hours to report whether they relayed a false Emergency Alert System message under a series of updates to EAS taken by the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday. The Commission also voted to make the public service announcements aired by stations educating the public about EAS more attention-grabbing.
The most significant move is designed to correct some of the flaws in the system exposed by the false missile alert in Hawaii earlier this year. The FCC adopted an order that gives any EAS participant including any radio and TV stations up to 24-hours to report to the FCC’s operation center after it’s discovered they transmitted or sent a false alert to the public. It’s an idea that has been circulating inside the Commission for years and broadcasters have long resisted mandatory reporting, saying such incidents are rare and fearing it could help the agency punish stations. But in the wake of January’s frightening wake-up call for Hawaiians, the FCC said that the potential erosion in the public’s confidence required a second look. But the Commission concluded that the information would help the FCC keep tabs on any false alerts that are sent. “We believe such notifications will help inform the FCC and FEMA as aim to identify and solve problems with EAS,” FCC chair Ajit Pai said.
Mandatory reporting was one of several proposals commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has been advocating for during the past several months, including at a field hearing in Honolulu. She said the proposal isn’t about punishing violators, but rather so the FCC “can learn from our errors going forward.”
The FCC has also adopted a requirement that EAS participants including radio stations reconfigure their receiving equipment to reject alerts that contain invalid signatures or any alerts whose expiration times fall outside the specified time limit. “This should reduce the frequency of false alerts reaching the public,” Pai said.
Static Over Three-Tone Alert
In a move that split the commissioners, the FCC also voted to allow the use of the attention-grabbing two-tone signal that precedes EAS messages to be used in public service announcements designed to educate the public about the system. The FCC said as long as the simulated tones created by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are used, there should be no problem with PSAs triggering other stations’ equipment. And officials said because the announcements wouldn’t use a header code, there would be “no possibility” of a PSA inadvertently triggering an actual alert. “If used properly, PSAs can raise public awareness and preparedness,” Pai said.
Use of the EAS tones outside an authorized test has carried the potential of fines in the past and the National Association of Broadcasters has raised red flags about the risk of “alert fatigue or public confusion” as listeners become desensitized to what has long been sacrosanct. Commissioner Michael O’Rielly agreed, saying the public has come to expect when they hear the tones that life-saving information is to follow. “Americans should not fear they are in imminent danger just to realize it’s an announcement intended to inform them that the screeching sound is what they will hear if it’s truly in harm’s way,” he said. “Talk about creating an environment where people are likely to grow to ignore real warnings.”
Officials inside the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau believe that with the safeguards in place, the use of the tones will work to enhance public’s understanding of EAS. Such a move has the backing of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But in a letter to the FCC this week Alfred Kenyon, chief of the customer support branch in FEMA’s IPAWS Program Office, said they should be used sparingly. “We concur that such usage should only be permitted if the PSA is presented in a non-misleading and technically harmless manner,” he said.
As a way to prevent the public and participants from being desensitized to EAS, even as the Commission gave permission to emergency management officials to conduct tests using live codes—something allowed on a case-by-case basis in the past— it also put a twice-a-year limit on the practice. “This will enable originators to simulate end-to-end test of the EAS,” Pai said. But by including a cap on how many people hear, O’Rielly said it would help ensure the public doesn’t learn to “disregard” EAS alerts.
More EAS Updates Possible
Even as the Commission approved several changes to its rules regarding EAS, it’s already considering other potential updates. In terms of how to deal with false alerts, the FCC is seeking comment on several suggestions for minimizing the potential impact of a mistake. That includes how quickly a correction should be distributed over EAS and whether any additional reporting requirements should be adopted. It also is proposing that state emergency plans be required to set up procedures for how to go about correcting a false alert if one is erroneously sent.
The Commission also voted to seek additional comments on the performance of Wireless Emergency Alerts or WEA, including how the performance of those alerts sent to mobile devices should be measured and whether any steps need to be taken that would address what official say has been “inconsistent” delivery of these messages since the capabilities launched in 2012.
In the meantime, FEMA has proposed the next nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System be conducted Sept. 20 at 2:18pm ET. It would also include a simultaneous first-ever national test of the Wireless Emergency Alert system.