Emergency Alert System warnings would become a lot harder to miss under a bill advancing in Congress. It would allow the government to put the alert on repeat while a threat remains pending. The proposal is part of a series of EAS rule changes following last January’s erroneous missile alert in Hawaii. Under the proposed Reliable Emergency Alert Distribution Improvement Act or “READI Act” (S.3238), the Federal Communications Commission would be given six months after the bill’s passage to determine how to implement the EAS repeats. But the bill does give some guidance, saying it would cover any messages that have been issued by the President or administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“When a missile alert went out across Hawaii in January, some people never got the message on their phones, while others missed it on their TVs and radios,” bill sponsor Brian Schatz (D-HI) said. “Even though it was a false alarm, the missile alert highlighted real ways we can improve the way people receive emergency alerts.”
Schatz secured John Thune (R-SD) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) as cosponsors and that helped clear the way for the READI Act to be unanimously passed by the Senate late Monday. It now moves on to the House, where Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) introduced companion legislation (H. R. 6427) in July. Supporters are working to make it one of a flurry of bills to win approval during the remaining days of the lame duck session.
In addition to putting an EAS message on repeat, the legislation would also require the FCC to conduct an inquiry into the feasibility of expanding EAS to online audio and video streaming services, such as Pandora, Spotify and Netflix. It would also explore a more broad distribution of alerts across the internet in general. The FCC findings would then be reported back to Congress which would decide whether any changes were needed in federal law in order to create such a mandate.
Other proposals in the READI Act include elimination of the option that currently allows the public to opt-out of receiving certain federal EAS messages on their mobile devices. It would also establish a reporting system for false alerts like the one that occurred in Hawaii earlier this year so that the FCC can track when they occur and examine their causes.
NAB Supports Proposals
Despite potential new requirements on radio and TV stations for multiple alert airings, the bill has the backing of the National Association of Broadcasters. Spokesman Dennis Wharton said NAB is behind any move that would improve the timeliness, accuracy and availability of emergency alerts when disaster strikes. “Local radio and TV broadcasters play a vital role as ‘first informers’ in keeping communities safe, and we understand the importance of relevant and up-to-date information when lives are at risk,” Wharton said.
A review conducted by the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau concluded the Hawaiian mistake was due to a combination of human error and the lack of effective operating procedures and safeguards. The price paid for such mistakes comes at the expense of EAS, says Thune. “Emergency alerts save lives but management mistakes can erode their credibility and effectiveness,” he said.
In June the Senate passed another emergency alert bill introduced by Schatz and Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Cory Gardner (R-CO.). Their Authenticating Local Emergencies and Real Threats or ALERT Act (S. 2385) would give the federal government the sole responsibility of alerting the public of a missile threat, while explicitly prohibiting state and local governments from doing so. It’s currently pending action in the House, where Reps. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI) and Gabbard (D-HI) have introduced a companion bill (H. R. 4965).