The Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced in a public notice released today that it has adopted the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) v1.2 Standard for FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert Warning System (IPAWS). Under the FCC’s Rules, Emergency Alert System (EAS) participants (e.g., radio and television stations, and wired and wireless cable television systems) must be able to receive CAP-formatted EAS alerts no later than 180 days after FEMA publishes the technical standards and requirements for CAP transmissions. Although FEMA’s public notice does not mention the 180 day clock, an FCC representative stated today that the 180 day period commences with issuance of the FEMA public notice. As a result, all EAS participants should assume that the release of the public notice today (September 30) initiated the 180 day period to acquire and install CAP-compliant equipment.
At its essence, IPAWS is a network of alert systems through which FEMA is upgrading the way Americans receive alert and warning information, providing that information through as many communications pathways as possible. CAP is an alerting format that uses digital technology to allow a consistent warning message to be disseminated simultaneously over as many different warning systems as possible. In addition to enhanced audio and video, CAP permits digital photos and text to be included in emergency alerts and AMBER alerts.
FEMA and the FCC are to be commended for their hard work in seeking to improve EAS and better alert the American people in the event of an emergency. However, EAS participants and equipment manufacturers alike have argued that 180 days is not enough time to acquire equipment compatible with the new CAP standards and to configure EAS systems to receive and relay CAP messages. Manufacturers of EAS equipment may not be able to meet the sudden demand for new equipment by that deadline if every EAS participant is indeed required to have CAP-capable equipment installed within 180 days. Many EAS players have also noted that the 180 day time frame does not take into account legitimate budgeting concerns, given that the equipment alone can cost $2,000-$3,000. With tight federal, state, and local budgets, most EAS participants will likely get no assistance in acquiring the equipment necessary to make the new alerting system work.
There is also the issue of equipment certification and testing. FEMA is expected to wrap up its initial certification process by issuing a list of CAP-certified equipment by the end of November. But it isn’t clear if the FCC will conduct its own certification process to provide EAS participants and EAS equipment manufacturers with the certainty of FCC rule compliance they would like prior to moving forward with acquiring CAP-compliant equipment. Many also complain that it remains unclear if parties will be able to fully test the reliability of their new CAP equipment until late 2011, given that the first national FEMA test of CAP is not expected to occur until that time.
Also, while EAS participants are required to meet the 180 day deadline, there are no rules requiring state or local Emergency Management Agencies or public safety departments to be able to actually deliver such alerts by that deadline. So while EAS participants will need to be able to receive national CAP messages delivered by FEMA, they will also need to make sure that their new equipment can simultaneously receive older “legacy” messages that may continue to be issued locally. And if states decide to implement a CAP-compliant EAS system in the future, there is no guarantee that the equipment they acquire then will be fully compatible with the equipment purchased earlier by EAS participants in that state.
The good news is that staff at both FEMA and the FCC have been made aware of these and other concerns surrounding the 180 day deadline and seem sympathetic to those concerns. It is therefore possible that the 180 day compliance period could be extended, but EAS participants should not rely on that being the case. Because of this, EAS participants will need to carefully assess their situation to determine when and how to select EAS equipment appropriate to their needs. EAS participants that wait until too late to focus on this issue will certainly face an emergency of their own.