FCC Looks to Overhaul EAS


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In response to numerous concerns raised by citizens, private organizations, and federal, state and local government agencies, the FCC has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) looking toward improving the Emergency Alert System (EAS).

The national-level operation of EAS is controlled by the FCC, in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Weather Service (NWS). The FCC handles the technical end of things, ensuring that the system is up and running; FEMA, on behalf of the President, is authorized to activate the system for national alerts. Not surprisingly, the NWS originates about 80 percent of all EAS alerts. Many EAS participants also directly monitor NWS transmissions and relay notice of impending emergencies over EAS. Additionally, state and local emergency management personnel have developed their own plans, which are implemented in combination with the established EAS system.

Room for change

FEMA has designated 34 radio stations as regional Primary Entry Point (PEP) stations, to which it distributes national-level EAS local messages. The United States is divided into 550 EAS Local Areas, each containing a main EAS source, known as the Local Primary One (LP-1). Each LP-1 monitors its regional PEP station for national level messages and serves as the point of contact for local authorities and the NWS to activate EAS.

The LP-1 stations are in turn monitored by more than 14,000 broadcast stations and 10,000 cable systems. These downstream participants are required to monitor a second designated station to prevent a failure at one station from stopping an EAS message from propagating through the system. Initiating an EAS message — at the national, state or local level — requires the participant to enter certain codes in EAS equipment. The EAS equipment automatically interrupts regular programming.

The FCC notes that two recent studies by private committees have advocated upgrading, not replacing, EAS. Recommendations include placing a single federal agency, possibly the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in charge of creating and overseeing an effective national warning system.

The Commission notes that EAS has never issued a national alert, even though it was originally designed for that purpose. Instead, it has been invoked for local, state and regional emergencies. Because of that, the FCC asks whether broadcasters should be required to participate in state and local alerts by making their facilities available to local emergency managers. Participants are not currently required to carry state and local alert messages.

The FCC want to establish national guidelines for state/local EAS plans and insists that adjacent state and local jurisdictions use standardized approaches. The Commission is contemplating national guidelines for the implementation of EAS at any level. To keep messages uniform, the FCC suggests requiring that all EAS participants monitor NWS transmissions and that local or state emergency managers concur with the initiation of any alert.

The NPRM suggests a number of technical updates to the system, such as requiring that all participants modify their EAS equipment to include various emergency event codes, which are of relative recent origin. Similarly, the NPRM seeks comments on how digital technology might be used to enhance warnings and to what extent stations currently make use of the technology.

The FCC questions whether it should extend EAS obligations to digital broadcast media such as DBS, DTV, satellite DARS and digital cable. The FCC also asks whether multi-channel broadcasters, (e.g., DTV stations and IBOC radio stations) should be required to transmit EAS messages on all program streams or only on one stream. Because IBOC signals can carry text displayed by the receiver, the FCC asks whether text should be part of IBOC EAS messages.


Dateline:

Radio stations in Connecticut, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota must file their renewal applications, biennial ownership reports and EEO program reports with the FCC on or before Dec. 1. Stations in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma must begin their pre-filing renewal announcements on Dec. 1.

Third quarter issues and programs lists were due to be placed in all station public files by Oct. 10.


Martin is president of the Federal Communications Bar Association and a member of Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth, Arlington, VA. E-mail martin@fhhlaw.com.




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