In 2011, the FCC conducted the first-ever nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System – commonly known as EAS (see our article here about the FCC's report on the results of that test). While the system was originally created to convey Presidential alerts to the nation, it has never been used for that purpose and, until the nationwide test, it had never even been tested. Instead, EAS has most commonly been used for local emergencies like weather alerts and, in recent years, Amber Alerts for missing or abducted children. In the Public Notice released this week, the Commission asked for comments on a number of issues uncovered during the nationwide test, which in many ways illustrated how far the EAS system has evolved from its original purpose.

The issues on which comments are sought are principally technical issues of system design, such as whether the time codes in the EAS headers work the same on all EAS hardware, or whether these codes resulted in tests running at different times on different stations.  Apparently, some stations immediately broadcast the alert when received, and others delayed it until the time specified in the codes indicated that it should be run (3 minutes after the alert was sent out). The Commission also noted that there is no specific code in the standard alert codes for a nationwide alert. Similarly, there is no “location code” for a nationwide alert, as all of the location codes (which specify the geographic area where the alert is targeted), have been set up on a state-wide or more localized basis for the weather alerts and other similar localized emergencies for which the system is regularly used. These would all seem like easy things to fix – but are they?

The Commission asks that very question – wondering if the hardware and software systems can be reprogrammed to accommodate new codes for a nationwide emergency alert and at what cost. Would the benefits of such new codes outweigh these costs?

Similar questions were raised with respect to required video crawls giving the time, duration and nature of the emergency from the codes contained in the alerts. The test uncovered the problem that the rules do not specify font size or any other readability requirements, so many of the alerts either went by too fast, or were in such small fonts that they were not readable. The Commission asks whether they should adopt more specific rules, and what the costs and benefits of such rules would be.

Finally, the Commission asked if the 30 second nationwide test was too short to adequately test the system, as some stations reported that the equipment does not trigger unless there is a longer message, and others complained that the short test did not allow enough time for manual overrides where automatic systems did not work. While the other identified issues all deal with the message alerts themselves, this problem seems to be only about testing – indicating once again that a follow-up test is probably in the works.

Comments on this proceeding are due on October 23, and reply comments on November 7.