FCC Extends Waiver Allowing False Emergency Tones in FEMA PSAs

Scott R. Flick

Posted May 21, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

Just two months after assessing nearly $2 million in fines to cable operators for airing ads for the movie Olympus Has Fallen containing false EAS tones, the FCC today granted an 18-month extension of its 2013 waiver allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to continue to use false emergency tones in Public Service Announcements.

In this case, the tone being used is not the "broadcast" EAS tone, but the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) tone transmitted to cell phones and other wireless devices in an emergency. In the words of the FCC, "[t]he WEA Attention Signal is a loud, attention-grabbing, two-tone audio signal that uses frequencies and sounds identical to the
distinctive and familiar attention signal used by the EAS."

According to the FCC's waiver extension order, the FEMA PSAs are a reaction to the public being "startled or annoyed" when hearing the WEA tone for the first time, and then seeking to turn off all future alerts. The PSAs are aimed at teaching the public how WEA works and how their mobile devices will behave when receiving a WEA alert.

Given these facts, on May 31, 2013, the FCC granted an unprecedented waiver of the prohibition on airing false emergency tones to permit FEMA PSAs containing the WEA tone to be aired. However, that waiver was limited to one year. Since that year is about up, FEMA recently sought an extension, and by today's order, the FCC has extended the waiver for an additional 18 months.

While FEMA indicates that it believes the announcements have been a success, it continues to receive negative media coverage and individual complaints about the WEA alerts. As a result, it wishes to continue distributing the PSAs for airing and needed today's waiver to accomplish that.

Of course, while FEMA is the party that sought the waiver, it is broadcasters and cable operators that are typically found liable when a false emergency tone airs. Both of those groups should therefore be concerned that the FCC did not grant an unconditional waiver, but instead extended the waiver only to announcements that "mak[e] it clear that the WEA Attention Signals are being used in the context of the PSA and for the purpose of educating the viewing or listening public about the functions of their WEA-capable mobile devices and the WEA program." As a result, the FCC warned that "leading off a PSA with a WEA Attention Signal, without warning, may be an effective attention-getting device, but it would violate the conditions of this waiver because of the effect that it could have on the listening or viewing public."

Broadcasters and cable operators will therefore need to screen all FEMA PSAs containing an emergency tone to ensure it is a WEA (and not an EAS) tone, and that the PSA meets the FCC's waiver conditions and therefore does not pose a risk of confusing the public as to whether an emergency is actually occurring. In other words, if FEMA runs afoul of this requirement in a future PSA, it is the broadcasters and cable operators airing it who will be facing the emergency.

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