With so much going on at the FCC and in connection with other topics that we consider, I’m sometimes late getting to all of the issues that arise, and sometimes never mention some of them.  But there is one interesting and important proceeding that the Commission has recently resuscitated and is worthy of mention – the proposal to mandate multilingual emergency alerts by broadcast stations – even when the station broadcasting in a language other than English is knocked off the air by some local emergency.  The proposal would require that all primary EAS stations broadcast national alerts in both English and Spanish, and that state EAS plans should designate stations to provide emergency information in other languages where there are significant populations that have a primary language other than English or Spanish.  Not only that, but English language stations in these areas are proposed to have to play a back-up role, ready to step in and provide emergency information in one of these languages should the primary station serving a particular non-English speaking population be forced off the air.  Comments on this proposal are due on April 28, and replies by May 12.

This is not a new proposal, having first been raised by MMTC (the Minority Media Telecommunications Council) in 2005 after there was a perceived failure to get information to minority populations in the area of Hurricane Katrina.  In recent filings, MMTC has suggested that broadcasters need to work together with local authorities to develop a plan that communicates each party’s responsibility based on likely contingencies. Specifically, MMTC stated, “Such a plan could be modeled after the current EAS structure that could include a ‘designated hitter’ approach to identify which stations would step in to broadcast multilingual information if the original non-English speaking station was knocked off air in the wake of a disaster.” What are the potential issues with such an approach? 

The issues are many, and the FCC seems to identify them in its request for comments.  What level of a non-English speaking population would trigger such a requirement?  What if there is no station that serves the non-English speaking market – who would be required to provide emergency information to that population, and at whose cost?  Even if there is such a station, and it is forced off the air in an emergency, how does the “designated hitter” station get the information to warn the foreign language speakers of the issues?  And how does the non-English speaking population get notice of the station to which they are supposed to turn in the wake of an emergency, especially if the responsibility to serve as that “designated hitter” station rotates?

The FCC also asks whether this kind of proposal has ever been implemented anywhere, and if it has, whether it worked.  Questions about the architecture of the EAS system, and its ability to handle multiple versions of the same alert (albeit in different languages) are also raised, as are issues of how primary stations are supposed to get a Presidential alert in Spanish (especially as national alerts have never been issued except for the one Nationwide EAS test in 2011, so having a capability to dub an alert in Spanish may be a capability that will never be used).

With all the issues that have been raised, most of which have been previously identified in the 9 years that the record has been open in this proceeding, it is almost surprising that this proposal has been put out for public comment at this time.  Yet it has, so companies involved in the EAS world should comment by the April 28 deadline for initial comments, or the May 12 deadline for replies.