With the approach of Hurricane Matthew to the coast of the southeast United States, emergency communications is a high priority for all media outlets. Emergency communications have also been a hot issue at the FCC – with 3 notices in the last week dealing with this important subject. One notice was to provide emergency contact information at the FCC which will be available 24 hours a day during the Hurricane for any assistance that the agency can provide. A second notice was a reminder of how broadcasters (particularly television broadcasters) need to make emergency information accessible. Information that is provided through spoken word must also be made available visually to the hearing impaired, and information that is presented visually must be provided aurally to those who are blind. The third notice asks for comments on the possible extension of time for the waiver of the obligation that TV broadcasters convert certain emergency information presented visually on-screen into audio on a SAP channel for those that are blind or otherwise visually impaired.

The 24-hour hotline (FCC information here) is a service that the FCC instituted many years ago during similar emergencies to help any licensed communications service to the extent possible. In some cases, the response may simply be an immediate response to a request for a temporary authorization to maintain service during the emergency. During Hurricane Katrina, I was asked by a client to talk to people manning the FCC’s emergency number about helping get a fuel truck bringing gasoline to power auxiliary generators at broadcast stations past FEMA roadblocks keeping traffic out of the worst-hit area. I don’t know if the call to the FCC did it, but the truck did get the authorization to enter the restricted area and the station was able to keep operating. So use this number if needed during the emergency.

But, for TV stations operating during the emergency (or for any other video provider, including cable and satellite television), remember to make emergency information provided aurally to viewers also available visually to the deaf and hard of hearing. The rules require that “[i]nformation, about a current emergency, that is intended to further the protection of life, health, safety, and property, i.e., critical details regarding the emergency and how to respond to the emergency” accessible to the hearing impaired. The FCC’s Notice states that “critical details” are “details regarding the areas that will be affected by the emergency, evacuation orders, detailed descriptions of areas to be evacuated, specific evacuation routes, approved shelters or the way to take shelter in one’s home, instructions on how to secure personal property, road closures, and how to obtain relief assistance.” This is a very important reminder, as the FCC’s Public Notice also provides a reminder for viewers on how to file complaints with the FCC if this information is not provided, and the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau has taken enforcement action against stations that failed to comply with this requirement.

The FCC notice makes clear that this obligation is unlike the requirements under the closed captioning rules, in that there are no exceptions. So small stations that may be exempt from some closed captioning rules, or programming running in the middle of the night that might be exempt from captioning obligations, nevertheless need to make “critical details” accessible during emergencies. The rule also applies outside of the immediate emergency area, if information (such as relocation information) may be pertinent to those arriving in a video provider’s service area.

The FCC requires that emergency information presented aurally on the station be made available in some visual manner – in open captions or other writings that do not block the closed captioning on the television station. We’ve seen situations where weather reporters have used whiteboards or other low-tech means to assure that this information is provided.

For emergency information that runs visually, such as a video crawl, the FCC rules require that if such information does not air during a news broadcast, it must be preceded by an aural tone, and that crawl information must be provided aurally on the TV station’s SAP channel. The emergency information must override any other audio on the SAP channel, such as video description or foreign language translation. The information must be preceded by an aural tone and must be provided in full at least twice. We wrote about the details of the obligations for broadcasters to convert textual emergency information to speech, and to broadcast that on a SAP channel here and here. Remember those obligations in connection with Matthew and in connection with any other local emergency where you provide information by a video crawl during an entertainment program. Read the FCC’s reminder notice for a good summary of all the emergency information that needs to be provided in an accessible manner under the FCC rules.

The obligation to convert visually-presented emergency information into speech on the SAP channel has been on hold in one instance – where the information is provided graphically, e.g. by broadcasting a weather map or similar non-textual display. The FCC yesterday asked for comments on a request for a further extension of this waiver of this obligation as the NAB and parties representing the visually impaired work on finding a technical solution for how such a graphics-to-voice conversion can be made. The current waiver of the compliance obligation expires November 26, 2016 (see our article here), and the parties are asking for another 18 month waiver to work on this technical solution. Comments on the extension request are due October 17, with replies due October 27.

Even though all of the country’s focus is now on Matthew and the areas that may be affected by the storm, broadcasters all around the country should take this time to remind their staff of the obligations imposed by the FCC rules to get emergency information out to communities in a manner that makes it accessible to all. Be aware of the rules, and don’t get caught with a violation of the rules while you are trying to do good by providing emergency information to your communities.

Update – 10/6/2016, 2:22 EDT – the FCC just released this new Public Notice providing an additional lists of contracts for stations to use during Hurricane Matthew, which also provides instructions as to getting Special Temporary Authority during the storm.