Almost a year and a half ago, the FCC held its first ever test of the EAS system designed to alert the country in the event of a nationwide emergency. On Friday, the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau issued a report on the results of the test. While there have been many articles in the trade press reporting on some of the findings of the Bureau, few have focused on one footnote indicating that many EAS participants – including some broadcasters and cable systems – never bothered to file their reports as to the results of their participation in the tests. The Bureau notes that the identity of these broadcasters will be turned over the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau for further action – potentially fines for their failures to report on the results of the test (we warned that this might be a consequence of the failure to file a report of the results of the test in our article here).  Broadcasters should watch for further action from the Enforcement Bureau at some point in the future.

The Report indicated that approximately 83% of all broadcasters who reported to the FCC had received the test. However, the FCC received reports from only about 13,787 stations.  According to the FCC’s tabulation of the number of broadcast stations in the US, as released in another FCC report last week, there are approximately 15,256 radio stations and 1781 TV stations in the United States. This could mean that there are a substantial number of broadcast stations that did not report the results of the nationwide test. The Commission apparently did not try to determine if the results achieved by those nonresponsive stations were different than the results of those who reported to the FCC.  One might assume that these stations, which somehow missed all the warnings about the need to file with the FCC the results of the tests, probably also missed instructions about how to comply with the EAS rules and thus were probably less likely to have fully operating EAS systems. So there is concern that the report may even understate the shortcomings of the nationwide test.

The FCC noted that there was at least some concern about the reporting system adopted for stations and others to report about the results of the nationwide test. The reporting system was unique – it was never used by the FCC before and was disabled soon after the test was completed. We understand that the reporting system did not allow stations to print out any sort of receipt for their filing, nor otherwise check on the status of the filing of their reports without calling an individual at the FCC who had to manually look up the information. The report indicates that the Commission, before conducting another test, should put in place a more robust reporting system that would allow for better follow up on the reporting of the results.

But the fact is that the test, while showing that a majority of the country would have received an alert, also noted that there were many deficiencies in the system. The problems included the following:

  • Widespread poor audio quality in the alerts, making the alert message hard to hear in many parts of the nation;
  • Lack of a Primary Entry Point (PEP) station in the area to provide a direct connection to FEMA – in certain states there was no PEP station identified, with reliance on other non-broadcast sources being problematic in many cases.  the PEP station is the one that receives the alert from FEMA and starts the distribution down the daisy chain to other stations;
  • Use of non-broadcast alternatives to PEP-based EAN (Emergency Action Notification - the code for the alert) distribution, some of which appeared to have been incorporated into the state EAS plans without FCC consultation;
  • The inability of some EAS Participants either to receive or retransmit the EAN for various reasons, even though the proper stations were being monitored;
  • Short test length, which did not trigger the EAS receivers at some stations; and
  • Anomalies in EAS equipment programming and operation.

Ultimately, the report suggests that another Nationwide EAS test take place, but that some of the issues that were discovered in this test be first addressed. The Report suggests that the FCC conduct a rulemaking to assess the equipment used for the EAS system to address some of the technical shortcomings. Also suggested was a review by each state of its EAS plan, and an assessment by the FCC of the state plans after that review. Finally, the report suggests that a series of best practices in EAS be adopted and distributed widely, so that each station and all other EAS participants fully know all that is expected of them in the future.

With emergencies so fresh on everyone’s mind this week after the events in Boston, everyone would hope that the FCC can create an EAS system that is totally reliable if a nationwide emergency that we all pray will never happen should occasion the need for the issuance of a real alert intended to reach all Americans quickly.