Nearly one year after the Federal Communications Commission revised the rule book that governs emergency alerts, the updates have finally taken effect. The Office of Management and Budget has approved the FCC to collect information on state Emergency Alert System plans for the next three years and, with publication of that approval last week in the Federal Register, the revisions impacting radio and television stations also go into effect.
The most significant move is designed to correct some of the flaws in the system exposed by the false missile alert in Hawaii last 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. Broadcasters have long resisted mandatory reporting, saying such incidents are rare and fearing it could help the agency punish stations. But the FCC said that the potential erosion in the public’s confidence required the change. It said it would also help the federal agencies—both the FCC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency—to identify and fix problems with EAS.
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,” FCC Chair Ajit Pai said last year.
More controversial is a change that will allow the use of the 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 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.
Even as broadcasters warned about the risk of “alert fatigue or public confusion” as listeners become desensitized to what has long been sacrosanct, the FCC said it was worth the risk. 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 the public’s understanding of EAS. The move also had the backing of FEMA. And as for the collection of state EAS plans, the FCC has already been busy collecting those documents and most are now posted on the agency’s website.
National EAS Test Next Month
The new rules concerning how EAS is promoted take effect just before the next scheduled national EAS test. FEMA selected Aug. 7 at 2:20pm ET as the date and time for the 2019 national activation, with a backup date of Aug. 21. The 2019 test will put a focus on the ability of the FEMA designated Primary Entry Point (PEP) facilities to originate the alert. And unlike last year, there will not be a companion test of the Wireless Emergency Alert system, further brightening the spotlight on radio and television stations.
Each station should have already submitted what’s known as “Form One” in the EAS Test Reporting System or ETRS. That’s the filing that tells the FCC about which EAS decoder and encoder stations are using, or units combining such decoder and encoder functions, as well as other identifying information.
As in previous years, the FCC will require two other filings from broadcasters. Form Two is the “day of test” filing that gives some basic information about how the station’s test went. Then by Sept. 23 the FCC will require every station to submit Form Three. That’s the more detailed data submitted post-test that allows the Commission to determine how the nationwide test performed.