Recently the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a Second Report and Order and a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in order to strengthen the nation’s Emergency Alert System (EAS).

The FCC’s release occurs in the wake of investigations into the distribution of emergency messages. In March, the Government Accountability Office issued a report on the EAS. It concluded that the media industry was generally prepared to participate in EAS as required, but the EAS had limitations that could affect the system’s future performance. The report stated that the “EAS faces a range of technical, cultural, and other challenges, such as interfacing with newer communications technologies and issuing alerts in multiple languages.” The Federal Advisory Committee on Hurricane Katrina also studied this issue, recommending foreign-language alerts, multiple platform alert distribution, and increased coordination to maximize the use of EAS during disasters.

The Emergency Alert System

The nation’s first alert system was established in the 1950s in order to warn Americans of the threat of nuclear attack. Today, the EAS remains a tool for federal, state, and local governments to issue emergency messages preempting scheduled programming. Broadcast radio and television stations, cable television systems, satellite television systems, and satellite radio operators are required to participate in national-level (or presidential) EAS alerts, while participation in state and local EAS alerts has been voluntary. The adopted changes to the EAS rules and issues subject to further comment are detailed below.

The Second Report and Order

The Second Report and Order will become effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, and adopts the following items:

  • Requires EAS participants to accept messages using Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) (an open interoperable standard that permits distribution across different platforms, i.e., radio, television, and wireless media). EAS participants must implement CAP standards no later than 180 days after the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announces its adoption of the CAP protocol. 
  • Directs the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau to convene a meeting (or series of meetings) focusing on the EAS needs of non-English speakers
  •  Expands the EAS system of media outlets by requiring the participation of wireline video providers. Note, in this order, the FCC did not address commercial wireless carrier participation in EAS. 
  • Requires television, radio, and cable EAS participants to transmit state level messages received from state governors. 
  • Instructs the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau of the FCC to coordinate with FEMA on the requirements and resources for EAS training programs.

The Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking

The FCC requests comments within 30 days and reply comments within 45 days after publication in the Federal Register regarding the following issues: 

  • How non-English speakers may be served by national, state, and local EAS. 
  • How EAS and other emergency information will be made accessible to persons with disabilities. 
  • Whether local, county, tribal, or other state governmental entities should be allowed to initiate mandatory state and local alerts. 
  • Whether methods should be employed for ensuring that EAS operates during an emergency (such as, additional EAS testing, station certifications of compliance, and assessments of EAS performance after an alert has been triggered).