The FCC recently fined a California television station $25,000 for failing to make emergency information accessible to individuals with hearing disabilities in a timely manner. In October 2003, wildfires in the San Diego area spread rapidly, propelled by high winds, causing the evacuation of many San Diego residents. During this time, the station broadcast emergency information regarding the wildfires and evacuations. Subsequently, a complaint was filed against the station alleging that it failed to make information on the wildfires accessible to persons with hearing disabilities.

Section 79.2 of the FCC’s Rules requires that video programming distributors include any emergency information being aired in the audio portion of their programming and provide persons with hearing disabilities visual access to that same emergency information. The rule does not require the use of closed captioning for such information, permitting stations to use such methods as open captioning, crawls, scrolls, maps, or signs as long as the critical details of the emergency information are conveyed. In response to an FCC Letter of Inquiry, the station provided videotapes of its coverage. The Enforcement Bureau reviewed these tapes and found numerous instances where the station aurally provided emergency information but substantially delayed the visual presentation of that information. The Enforcement Bureau identified 22 examples where the stations delayed visual presentation of emergency information for greater than 30 minutes after the same information was provided aurally. Accordingly, a fine of $25,000 was proposed.

The station responded, arguing that it should not be subject to the proposed fine. In addition to contesting the individual violations, the station generally contended that professional journalists act as “filters” in deciding what information constitutes the “critical details” of an emergency for purposes of providing the information to individuals with a hearing disability. The Commission disagreed, finding that the filtering role of the station ends when emergency information is presented aurally. Once this information is conveyed to the public at large, it must also be conveyed pursuant to Section 79.2 of the Rules. After rejecting the station’s arguments, the $25,000 fine was upheld.