With Hurricane Florence about to hit the East Coast, broadcasters are well reminded of their obligations with respect to the airing of emergency information. Broadcasters may also want to consider the benefits that the FCC can offer in an emergency. While the FCC yesterday announced the postponement of its test of DIRS, the Disaster Information Reporting System, broadcasters may want to consider quickly getting familiar with this system. The voluntary system allows stations in the area affected by any disaster to report on the status of their operations. In the past, FCC officials have assisted stations that were off-the-air or operating with emergency facilities in order to direct resources (like gas trucks to fuel emergency generators) to these stations so that they could continue to provide emergency information. Registering in DIRS can facilitate getting the information about your station’s status to the FCC. More information is available on the FCC’s website, here.

But emergencies also impose regulatory obligations on broadcasters – particularly TV broadcasters. Last year, the issued a FCC Public Notice reminding all video programmers of the importance of making emergency information accessible to all viewers. The FCC has just posted a link to a notice about a disaster preparedness webinar it will be conducting on September 27 for state and local government officials, and we would not be surprised to see a new notice reminding broadcasters of their emergency obligations in the coming days. Last year’s notice serves as a good refresher on all of the obligations of video programmers designed to make emergency information available to members of the viewing audience who may have auditory or visual impairments that may make this information harder to receive. The notice also reminded readers that they could file complaints against video programming distributors who do not follow the rules. Thus, TV broadcasters need to be extremely sensitive to all of these requirements.

What are these obligations? These are some of the obligations highlighted by the FCC’s reminder:

  • For persons who are visually impaired, rules require that emergency information that is visually provided in a newscast must also be aurally described in the main audio channel of the station.
  • When emergency information is provided outside of a newscast (e.g., in a crawl during entertainment programming), that information must be accompanied by an aural tone and then an audio version of the emergency information must be broadcast on a secondary audio channel (SAP channel) of a TV station at least twice. See our articles here, here and here about this obligation.
  • For persons who are deaf or hard of hearing, the Commission requires that emergency information provided in the audio portion of a broadcast also be presented visually, through methods including captioning, crawls or scrolls that do not block any emergency information provided through other visual means (like other captions or crawls).
  • For stations that are permitted to use electronic newsroom technique (ENT) captions, where ENT does not provide captions for breaking news and emergency alerts, stations must make emergency information available through some other visual means. See our post here on this obligation.
  • The FCC suggests, but does not require, that stations make emergency information available through multiple means (maps, charts, and other visual information) and in plain language, so that all viewers can understand the nature of any emergency.

Emergency information is described broadly as information “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.” The FCC gives the following examples of the types of emergencies that may be covered: “tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, tidal waves, earthquakes, icing conditions, heavy snows, widespread fires, discharge of toxic gases, widespread power failures, industrial explosions, civil disorders, …. and warnings and watches of impending changes in weather.” The kinds of details that trigger these obligations include “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.”

The Commission noted that, in wide-spread emergencies like a hurricane, notices may need to be provided far beyond the local area directly hit by the emergency, as other areas can also be affected by the event.

Paying attention to the rules highlighted here and provided in more detail in the FCC’s Public Notice are very important, not just as it is important for broadcasters to serve all members of the public in their viewing areas, but also because there has been active enforcement in this area. The enforcement of these rules do not appear to be a partisan issue, as certain accessibility obligations have even be made more stringent during the term of this administration otherwise noted for its deregulation in other areas. With the upcoming storm, and to prepare for any other emergency that may arise, broadcasters should pay attention to these important emergency obligations.