Emergency Alert System Category

Big Fines for False EAS Tones Demonstrate the Need for a Good Indemnification Clause

Scott R. Flick

Posted March 3, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

There was quite a stir today when the FCC, despite being closed for a snow day, issued a Notice of Apparent Liability proposing very large fines against Viacom ($1,120,000), NBCUniversal ($530,000), and ESPN ($280,000) for transmitting false EAS alert tones. According to the FCC, all three aired an ad for the movie Olympus Has Fallen that contained a false EAS alert tone, with Viacom airing it 108 times on seven of its cable networks, NBCUniversal airing it 38 times on seven of its cable networks, and ESPN airing it 13 times on three of its cable networks.

The size of the fines certainly drew some attention. Probably not helping the situation was the ad's inclusion of the onscreen text "THIS IS NOT A TEST" and "THIS IS NOT A DRILL" while sounding the EAS tone. The FCC launched the investigation after receiving complaints from the public.

All three entities raised a variety of arguments that were uniformly rejected by the FCC, including that "they had inadequate notice of the requirements and applicability of the rules with respect to EAS violations." What particularly caught my eye, however, was that all three indicated the ad had cleared an internal review before airing, and in each case, those handling the internal review were apparently unaware of Section 325 of the Communications Act (prohibiting transmission of a "false or fraudulent signal of distress") and Section 11.45 of the FCC's Rules, which states that "No person may transmit or cause to transmit the EAS codes or Attention Signal, or a recording or simulation thereof, in any circumstance other than in an actual National, State or Local Area emergency or authorized test of the EAS."

Back in 2010, I wrote a post titled EAS False Alerts in Radio Ads and Other Reasons to Panic that discussed the evolution of the FCC's concerns about false emergency tones in media, which originally centered on sirens, then on Emergency Broadcast System tones, and now on the Emergency Alert System's digital squeals. Two months later, I found myself writing about it again (The Phantom Menace: Return of the EAS False Alerts) when a TV ad for the movie Skyline was distributed for airing with a false EAS tone included in it.

That was the beginning of what has since become a clear trend. Those initial posts warned broadcasters and cable programmers to avoid airing specific ads with false EAS tones, but were not connected to any adverse action by the FCC. After three years of EAS tone tranquility, the issue reemerged in 2013 when hackers managed to commandeer via Internet the EAS equipment of some Michigan and Montana TV stations to send out false EAS alert warnings of a zombie attack. The result was a rapid public notice from the FCC instructing EAS participants to change their EAS passwords and ensure their firewalls are functioning (covered in my posts FCC Urges IMMEDIATE Action to Prevent Further Fake EAS Alerts and EAS Alerts and the Zombie Apocalypse Make Skynet a Reality), but no fines.

From there we moved in a strange direction when the Federal Emergency Management Agency distributed a public service announcement seeking to educate the public about the Emergency Alert System, but used an EAS tone to get that message across. Because it did not involve an actual emergency nor a test of the EAS system, the PSA violated the FCC's rule against false EAS tones and broadcasters had no choice but to decline to air it. The matter was resolved when the FCC quickly rushed through a one-year waiver permitting the FEMA ad to be aired (Stations Find Out When Airing a Fake EAS Tone Is Okay).

Late last year, however, the evolution of the FCC's treatment of false EAS alerts turned dark (FCC Reaches Tipping Point on False EAS Alerts) when the FCC issued the first financial penalties for false EAS alerts. The FCC proposed a $25,000 fine for Turner Broadcasting and entered into a $39,000 consent decree with a Kentucky radio station for airing false EAS alert tones. The FCC indicated at the time that other investigations were ongoing, and more fines might be on the way.

We didn't have to wait long, as just two months later, the FCC upped the ante, proposing a fine of $200,000 against Turner Broadcasting for again airing false EAS alert tones, this time on its Adult Swim network. The size of the fine was startling, and according to the FCC, was based upon the nationwide reach of the false EAS tone ad, as well as the fact that Turner had indicated in connection with its earlier $25,000 fine that it had put in place mechanisms to prevent such an event from happening again. When it did happen again, the FCC didn't hesitate to assess the $200,000 fine.

Today's order, issued less than two months after the last Turner decision, ups the ante once again, proposing fines of such size that only some of the FCC's larger indecency fines compare. The FCC is clearly sending a signal that it takes false EAS tones very seriously, and the fact that the ads containing the EAS tones were produced by an independent third party didn't let the programmers off the hook. In other words, it doesn't matter how or why the ads got on the air; the mere fact that they aired is sufficient to create liability.

So what lesson should broadcasters and cable networks take away from this? Well, the all too obvious one is to do whatever it takes to prevent false EAS tones from making it on air. However, an equally useful lesson is to make sure that your contracts with advertisers require the advertiser to warrant that the spots provided will comply with all laws and to indemnify the broadcaster or network if that turns out not to be the case. That won't save you from a big FCC fine and a black mark on your FCC record, but it will at least require the advertiser to compensate you for the damages you suffered in airing the ad and defending yourself. Unfortunately, many advertising contracts are not particularly well drafted (and some are just a handshake), which can expose you to a variety of liabilities like this unnecessarily.

It is therefore wise to have both your ad contracts and your advertising guidelines carefully reviewed by counsel experienced in this area of the law. Vigilant review of ads submitted for airing is an excellent first line of defense, but as demonstrated in today's decision, it won't do much good if the individuals reviewing the ads don't know what to look for.


FCC Prophecy on False EAS Alerts Comes True to the Tune of $200,000

Scott R. Flick

Posted January 14, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

Over the years, I've written numerous times about the FCC's adverse reaction to advertisers seeking to make their ads more attention-getting through inclusion of an Emergency Alert System tone. The most recent was this past November, when the FCC proposed a $25,000 fine against Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. for an EAS tone-laden Conan promo, and announced a $39,000 consent decree with a Kentucky TV station for a local sports apparel store ad containing an EAS alert tone.

I titled the post FCC Reaches Tipping Point on False EAS Alerts, and noted at the end of it that

ominously, today's FCC Enforcement Advisory notes that "[o]ther investigations remain ongoing, and the Bureau will take further enforcement action if warranted." Given today's actions by the FCC, everyone whose job it is to review ad content before it airs is having a very bad day.
Today, the FCC fulfilled that prophecy, proposing an additional $200,000 fine against Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. for distributing another ad containing EAS tones. According to the FCC, Turner's Adult Swim Network aired ads produced by Sony Music Group promoting an album by rap artist A$AP Rocky and the album's availability at Best Buy stores. While the ad did not contain any digital data from an EAS tone, it did simulate the EAS audio tone itself. The ad aired seven times over the network's East Coast feed, and then was repeated seven more times in the West Coast feed three hours later.

The FCC's decision is "spirited" (at least by FCC standards), managing to convey a fair degree of exasperation, principally because of Turner's prior violation and the fact that

In response to those [earlier] complaints, which also emphasized the potential impact on public safety of the transmission of such material, Turner represented to the Commission that it had changed certain of its internal review practices. Nevertheless, another Turner-owned channel, less than one year later, transmitted the A$AP Rocky/Best Buy advertisement 14 times over a six day period, which also contained simulations of the EAS codes. Thus, despite its experience with the problem of misusing EAS codes and Attention Signals, Turner continued to violate Section 11.45 of the Commission's rules and Section 325(a) of the Act, indicating a higher degree of culpability in this instance. Therefore, based on the number of transmissions at issue, the amount of time over which the transmissions took place, the nationwide scope of Adult Swim Network's audience reach, Turner's degree of culpability, Turner's ability to pay, and the serious public safety implications of the violations, as well as the other factors as outlined in the Commission's Forfeiture Policy Statement, we find that a forfeiture of two hundred thousand dollars ($200,000) is appropriate.
Beyond the unprecedented size of the fine for such a violation, today's decision is also notable because, unlike the self-inflicted wound of putting an EAS tone in a program promo, this case involved a spot produced by a third party. While the FCC has appeared in the past to have had at least some sympathy where a problem in a third-party ad "slipped through", the FCC's sympathy seems to be exhausted at this point. Having said that, it is worth noting that the FCC went after the program network rather than the individual cable and satellite systems that actually transmitted the spots to the public. Cable and satellite providers can take at least some solace in that.

While the nationwide audience and prior violation may have made the size of this fine somewhat unique, it is safe to say that the FCC has reached the point that it is unlikely to find a false EAS tone, no matter the circumstances, to be an excusable "oops" on the part of a program distributor. While the FCC might once have been willing to just admonish a violator and save the fines for repeat offenders, it appears that there will no longer be any free bites at the false EAS tone apple, and that each bite will be appreciably more expensive than the last.

Of course, if the FCC is hoping that steadily escalating fines will cause violators to lose their taste for the forbidden fruit of false EAS tones in ads, the question is whether advertisers will also hear that message, or are broadcasters, cable operators and satellite TV providers forever doomed to play a game of whack-a-mole (whack-a-tone?) with third-party ads?


FCC Reaches Tipping Point on False EAS Alerts

Scott R. Flick

Posted November 5, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

Over the years, I've written a number of times of the FCC's concern about airing emergency sounds, from the siren blare telling you that Indiana Wants Me, to Emergency Alert System tones promoting the movie Skyline, to an actual EAS alert warning of the Zombie Apocalypse.

Section 11.45 of the FCC's Rules states that "[n]o person may transmit or cause to transmit the EAS codes or Attention Signal, or a recording or simulation thereof, in any circumstance other than in an actual National, State or Local Area emergency or authorized test of the EAS." As a result, every time that annoying EAS digital squeal slips onto the airwaves during a commercial rather than in an EAS test, it is guaranteed that the employee charged with screening ads is going to have a very bad day.

Fortunately, most broadcasters and cable operators are well aware of the restriction and go to great lengths to screen out such content. Unfortunately, advertisers and ad agencies are often not so attuned, and given the sheer amount of ad content being aired, an EAS-laden ad will slip through sooner or later.

Aggravating the situation is that while airing the tone from the old Emergency Broadcast System could cause public confusion, the EAS squeal contains digital information that is relayed to other media entities, whose EAS equipment then reads that data and automatically transmits the alert on down the alert chain. The farther the alert travels from the original source (where observant viewers or listeners might have figured out it was just part of a commercial), the greater the likelihood of public confusion and panic.

While the FCC certainly takes EAS false alerts seriously, it has seemed to recognize that the media entity airing the ad is usually as much a victim of the false alert signal as anyone, and as long as prompt action was taken to prevent a recurrence, has not been particularly punitive in its enforcement actions. Its strongest reaction to false EAS alerts up till now has been to issue an Urgent Advisory after the Zombie Apocalypse telling EAS participants to change the default password on their EAS equipment to prevent hackers from commandeering the equipment over the Internet to send out false alerts.

That changed late today, when the FCC issued a News Release and an FCC Enforcement Advisory warning against "False, Fraudulent or Unauthorized Use of the Emergency Alert System Attention Signal and Codes", along with a Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL) for $25,000 against Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. and a $39,000 consent decree against a Kentucky TV station.

According to the NAL, Turner aired a promo for the Conan show that contained a simulated EAS tone in connection with an appearance by comic actor Jack Black. The FCC was not amused. While the base fine for violating Section 11.45 is $8,000, the FCC found that the seriousness of the violation, particularly given the nationwide transmission of the false alert signal, as well as Turner's ability to pay, justified increasing the proposed fine to $25,000. While not specifically addressed in the NAL, the fact that Turner produced the promo itself, rather than this being a case of a third party advertiser slipping it past Turner, appears to have drawn the FCC's ire.

More interesting still is the $39,000 consent decree, where the Kentucky station did not contest that it aired an ad for a sports apparel store that "stops in the middle of the commercial and sounds the exact tone used for the Emergency Alert warnings." Besides the eye-opening $39,000 payment, the consent decree requires extensive further efforts by the licensee, including implementing a Section 11.45 compliance program for its staff, creating and distributing a compliance manual to its staff, implementing a compliance training program, filing annual compliance reports for the next three years, reporting any future violations to the FCC, and developing and implementing a program to "educate members of the public about the EAS alerts, the limits of public warning capabilities, and appropriate responses to emergency warning messages." With regard to this last requirement, the educational program must include:

  • Airing 160 public service announcements (80 on the station's primary channel and 80 on its multicast channel).
  • Interviewing local emergency preparedness officials and including vignettes on emergency awareness topics at least twice a month on the station's morning program.
  • Expanding the station's website to include links to local emergency agencies, banner messages with emergency-related information, and video messages from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local emergency preparedness agencies.
  • Installing an additional SkyCam at its tower site and using "special radio equipment" to communicate with local emergency management officials and which will relay alerts to the station's master control personnel.
  • Leasing tower space to the local emergency management agency for a "new modernized communications system" linking local agencies and organizations.
  • Using social media and digital technologies to promptly disseminate emergency alerts, including posting information culled from the station's public service announcements, vignettes, and the local emergency management agency on the station's Facebook page weekly, and including timely late-breaking news coverage of severe weather conditions and forecasts on the station's smartphone app.
  • Utilizing specific computer hardware and software to render weather data and maps for use on-air, online, and in mobile applications, as well as to track severe weather events.
  • Periodically reviewing and revising the station's educational program to improve it and ensure it is current and complete, including conferring with the National Weather Service and state, county and federal emergency preparedness managers and public safety officials.
The consent decree does not indicate how many times the offending ad aired, or if the station produced it, but the severity of the consent decree terms is startling. Also noteworthy is the FCC Enforcement Advisory's admonition that not just broadcast stations and multichannel video programming distributors are on the hook, but that "[t]he prohibition thus applies to programmers that distribute programming containing a prohibited sound regardless of whether or not they deliver the unlawful signal directly to consumers; it also applies to a person who transmits an unlawful signal even if that person did not create or produce the prohibited programming in the first instance."

The FCC has therefore decided that it is time to crack down on violations, and ominously, today's FCC Enforcement Advisory notes that "[o]ther investigations remain ongoing, and the Bureau will take further enforcement action if warranted." Given today's actions by the FCC, everyone whose job it is to review ad content before it airs is having a very bad day.


Stations Find Out When Airing a Fake EAS Tone Is Okay

Scott R. Flick

Posted May 31, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

In what has been a recurring theme at CommLawCenter, I've written about the FCC rule prohibiting the airing of Emergency Alert System codes and tones unless there is an actual emergency or EAS test. Despite the rule, the draw of using an EAS tone is apparently irresistible, and we've seen it used in movie ads, oil company ads, and even zombie alerts.

Unlike many FCC rules, the ambiguity of which can leave seasoned practitioners arguing over what is or isn't prohibited, Section 11.45 of the FCC's Rules has been a model of clarity:


"No person may transmit or cause to transmit the EAS codes or Attention Signal, or a recording or simulation thereof, in any circumstance other than in an actual National, State or Local Area emergency or authorized test of the EAS."

As a result, while advertisers might succumb to the temptation to slip an EAS tone (really, it's more of a digital squeal) into their ads, the broadcaster's duty was straightforward--try to catch the ad before it airs, and then let the advertiser know that the ad can't be run unless it is modified to delete the tone.

Yesterday, however, life suddenly became more complicated for broadcasters when stations began receiving copies of a Public Service Announcement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency seeking to educate the public about the Emergency Alert System using the EAS tone to get that message across. Station operators were understandably confused, thinking that surely FEMA, as a fellow federal agency to the FCC (and an expert on all things related to EAS), wouldn't be distributing a PSA that included an illegal EAS tone.

That was not, however, a safe assumption. On multiple occasions, federal and state agencies have, for example, distributed ads or PSAs that lack the sponsorship identification announcement required by the FCC, with one of the more famous examples leading to a 2002 FCC decision refusing to grant a waiver of its sponsorship identification rule to allow the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy to run anti-drug ads without disclosing that it was the sponsor.

As stations began to decline to run the PSAs for fear or incurring the FCC's wrath, the FCC moved quickly (and quietly, I might add) to break from its prior approach, and today released a decision granting an unprecedented one-year waiver of Section 11.45, permitting FEMA spots to use the EAS tone as long as they make "clear that the WEA [Wireless Emergency Alert] 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." The FCC also "recommend[s] that FEMA take steps to ensure that such PSAs clearly state that they are part of FEMA's public education campaign."

The good news today is that the FCC approached the problem head on by granting a waiver rather than trying to "interpret" its rule to somehow not cover the FEMA PSA tones. Such an interpretation would have left broadcasters scratching their heads every time an EAS tone pops up in a future spot, trying to figure out whether that use might also fit into such an exception. The bad news, however, is that broadcasters have now been told that fake EAS tones are sometimes okay, and they need to be watching the FCC's daily releases to determine if a particular use has suddenly become acceptable. Hopefully, such spots will actually educate the public to better understand the purpose of EAS alerts, as opposed to merely acclimating them to hearing the tone on-air and learning to ignore it.


FCC Issues Lessons Learned From First Ever Nationwide EAS Test

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted April 14, 2013

By Paul A. Cicelski

As our readers are aware, we did a great deal of reporting before and after the first-ever Nationwide Emergency Alert System (EAS) Test conducted on November 9, 2011. The purpose of that test was to assess the readiness and effectiveness of the system in the event of an actual national emergency. Broadcasters, as well as cable, satellite, and wireline providers across the country (EAS Participants), all took part in the test. For a quick refresher, see my previous posts on the test here, here, here, here, and here. Late this past Friday, the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau released a report summarizing the outcome of the national test entitled: "Strengthening the Emergency Alert System (EAS): Lessons Learned from the Nationwide EAS Test".

As the FCC and FEMA have made clear on numerous ocassions, the national EAS test was not intended to be a pass or fail event, but was to be used to identify and address the limitations of the current EAS. The Report concludes that the national EAS alert distribution architecture is sound and that the national test was received by a large majority of EAS Participants and could be seen and heard by most Americans. The results of the test show that more than 80 percent of EAS Participants across the country successfully received and relayed the FEMA test message.

The Report also indicates, however, that there are a number of technical areas where the system can be improved. According to the Report, among the problems that impeded the ability of EAS Participants to receive and/or retransmit the emergency Action Notification (EAN) issued by FEMA, and of the public to receive it, were:

  • Widespread poor audio quality;
  • Lack of a Primary Entry Point (PEP) in an area to provide a direct connection to FEMA;
  • Use of alternatives to PEP-based EAN distribution;
  • The inability of some EAS Participants either to receive or retransmit the EAN;
  • Short test length; and
  • Anomalies in EAS equipment programming and operation.

As a result of its findings, the Report recommends that another nationwide test be conducted after the FCC commences a number of formal rulemaking proceedings seeking public comment on steps to improve EAS related to these and other shortcomings.

In its Report, the Bureau also recommends that, in connection with any future EAS testing, the FCC develop a new Nationwide EAS Test Reporting System to improve the electronic filing of test result data. The Report also encourages the Executive Office of the President to reconvene the Federal EAS Test Working Group to work with Federal partners and other stakeholders to use the results of the test to find ways to improve EAS and plan for future nationwide tests.

Despite the audio problems and other issues identified in the Report with respect to the nationwide EAS test, the first ever test appears to have achieved its goal of helping the FCC, FEMA, and EAS Participants identify areas where EAS can be improved in the event of an actual emergency. If the recommendations outlined in the Report are implemented by the FCC, the public will likely have a number of opportunities during upcoming rulemaking proceedings to provide their input to the FCC on ways to further improve the reliability of the nation's EAS.


FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick Paul A. Cicelski

Posted March 29, 2013

By Scott R. Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

March 2013

Pillsbury's communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month's issue includes:

  • Delay in Providing Access to Public Inspection File Leads to Fine
  • FCC Fines Broadcaster for Antenna Tower Fencing, EAS and Public Inspection File Violations
Radio Station Fined $10,000 for Not Providing Immediate Access to Public File

This month, the Enforcement Bureau of the FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture and Order ("NAL") in the amount of $10,000 against a Texas noncommercial broadcaster for failing to promptly make its public inspection file available. For the delay of a few hours, the Commission proposed a fine of $10,000 and reminded the licensee that stations must make their public inspection file available for inspection at any time during regular business hours and that a simple request to review the public file is all it takes to mandate access.

According to the NAL, an individual from a competitor arrived at the station at approximately 10:45 a.m. and asked to review the station public inspection file. Station personnel informed the individual that the General Manager could give him access to the public files, but that the General Manager would not arrive at the station until "after noon." The individual returned to the studio at 12:30 p.m.; however, the General Manager had still not arrived at the studio. According to the visiting individual, the receptionist repeatedly asked him if he "was with the FCC." Ultimately, the receptionist was able to reach the General Manager by phone, and the parties do not dispute that at that time, the individual asked to see the public file. During that call, the General Manager told the receptionist to give the visitor access to the file. According to the visitor, when the General Manager finally arrived, he too asked if the individual was from the FCC, and then proceeded to monitor the individual's review of the public file.

After the station visit, the competitor filed a Complaint with the FCC alleging that the station public files were incomplete and that the station improperly denied access to the public inspection files. The FCC then issued a Letter of Inquiry to the station, requesting that the station respond to the allegations and to provide additional information. The station denied that any items were missing from the public file and also denied that it failed to provide access to the files.

Continue reading "FCC Enforcement Monitor"


EAS Alerts and the Zombie Apocalypse Make Skynet a Reality

Scott R. Flick

Posted February 14, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

At this stage in the media cycle, few could have missed the news of several Michigan and Montana TV stations airing an EAS alert warning the public of a zombie attack. As I noted earlier this week, while the facts surrounding these alerts are still developing, it appears they were the result of someone outside the U.S. triggering the stations' EAS equipment via that equipment's Internet connection. While the resulting burst of media stories quickly devolved into a flurry of zombie jokes, the movie that came to mind as the story developed was not Night of the Living Dead, but the Terminator films, which feature an interconnected national defense network called Skynet. In the films, Skynet becomes so sophisticated as to turn on its creators, causing a nuclear launch that brings destruction to the human race and, after the movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger to the California Governor's Office.

For many years, the EAS system, as well as its predecessor, the Emergency Broadcast System, operated by having a number of primary broadcast stations connected to governmental agencies through a closed network (typically over telephone lines). When an alert was sent to these primary stations, they would broadcast the alert, which would then be picked up and aired by stations monitoring the signal of the primary station, and in turn, by other stations monitoring those secondary stations. This created a daisy chain in which an announcement over one station quickly spread to stations throughout the alert area.

One of the perceived flaws of the Emergency Broadcast System was the amount of human interaction it required. For example, when a national alert was accidentally triggered in 1971, it caused little disruption, since many station managers intercepted it and did not air it because they heard no corroboration of the emergency over their newswires. While it turned out that those station managers were correct in concluding it was an accidental alert, critics of the Emergency Broadcast System counted this event as a failure of the system, since the delay inherent in station managers deciding whether an alert should be aired (and the risk that they may reach the wrong conclusion) puts more lives in danger.

The shift to EAS from the Emergency Broadcast System was done largely to increase the automation, and therefore the reliability, of the system. That digital squeal you hear accompanying an EAS warning is a digital code instructing other equipment, including the public's radios (if properly equipped), to activate, lessening the chance that emergency alerts go unheard, either because a link in the daisy chain failed to relay the message, or because the public was not listening to radio or watching TV at the time.

The downside to this level of automation soon became apparent. As I wrote in September of 2010, a radio ad for gas stations sought to satirize emergency alert announcements, right down to including the EAS digital tone. Because EAS equipment has a poor sense of humor and is no judge of context, any station airing the ad would trigger EAS alerts on the stations "downstream" from it in the EAS daisy chain. For this reason, Section §11.45 of the FCC's Rules provides that "No person may transmit or cause to transmit the EAS codes or Attention Signal, or a recording or simulation thereof, in any circumstance other than in an actual National, State or Local Area emergency or authorized test of the EAS." Just a few months later, the problem repeated itself when TV ads for the disaster movie Skyline included an EAS tone among the many sound effects in the ad.

The highly automated nature of EAS was demonstrated yet again this week, when a Wisconsin radio station's morning show disc jockeys played a tape of the zombie EAS alert, including the digital tone. The result was--you guessed it--the alert being automatically rebroadcast over at least one local television station whose EAS equipment was activated by the digital EAS tone.

While the automatic nature of EAS creates the risk of false alerts propagating rapidly, at least the false alerts up until now were somewhat self-inflicted wounds, caused by either the system being erroneously activated by a governmental mistake, or by an EAS Participant accidentally airing an activation code contained in third-party content. Because of the closed nature of the system, false activations necessarily required a mistake from a participant in the EAS system, even if that mistake was airing third party content that had not been screened for EAS tones.

This week's episode, however, appears to have been something entirely different. In an effort to expand the types of consumer devices capable of relaying an alert, the backbone of the EAS system was moved not long ago from the closed network model to an Internet-based system. The benefit is that mobile and other devices connected to the Internet will be able to relay alerts to the public automatically, ensuring the broadest possible distribution of the alert. The bad news, however, is that by shifting to an Internet backbone, we have opened the public alert system to the same outside forces that plague every other aspect of the Internet. In this week's case, it appears that someone outside the U.S. spent a number of days trying to use those Internet connections to access station EAS equipment. In at least a few cases, they succeeded, generating the now-infamous zombie alerts.

So the good news is that we are well along in the development of an automated emergency alert system that can spread emergency information to most Americans in a matter of minutes. The bad news is that by putting the system almost entirely under the control of "the machines" (a Terminator term), the moderating effect of human involvement is greatly limited. In addition, by connecting this equipment through the Internet, we have expanded the ubiquity of the system, but at the cost of making every EAS Participant's equipment, whether in Michigan, Montana, or elsewhere, readily accessible to every miscreant in the world with an Internet connection.

Thus, we are perfecting an automated response system that operates most efficiently without human involvement, while creating opportunities for control of that system (or at least portions of it) to fall into the hands of those who do not have our best interests at heart. In other words, Skynet is now a reality. This Skynet does not, thankfully, have the power to initiate nuclear launches, but it certainly does have the capability to launch public panic. A more realistic alert than a zombie attack could cause immense confusion and harm, particularly where the false message is being reinforced by identical EAS alerts on every source of information available, whether it be broadcast, cable, satellite, or smartphone.

I have worked with many of the individuals who created and have dedicated themselves to improving and expanding the current EAS system, and I have no doubt that they are moving quickly to seal off any vulnerabilities discovered in the zombie attacks. Still, I can't help but wonder if EAS is now subject to the same Internet arms race that bedevils online security everywhere, with ever-evolving measures and countermeasures being deployed in an effort to stay one step ahead of those wishing to commandeer the alert system for their own benefit or amusement. If so, the questions becomes: which is worse, false alerts that panic the populace, or a populace that becomes so used to false alerts that they ignore a real one?


FCC Urges IMMEDIATE Action to Prevent Further Fake EAS Alerts

Scott R. Flick

Posted February 12, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

With the State of the Union Address occurring tonight, the FCC wasted no time in advising broadcast stations and other EAS Participants to take immediate steps to prevent unauthorized uses of the Emergency Alert System like the fake zombie attack alerts that went out over a few stations in Michigan and Montana yesterday. While federal and state authorities are investigating the source of those hoax alerts, which appear to have come from outside the U.S., the FCC has just released instructions for EAS Participants in hopes of heading off any more false alerts.

The haste with which these instructions have been generated is demonstrated by the fact that they are not even on FCC letterhead, nor formatted for such a release. It is also worth noting that they are not described as "recommendations" or "guidelines", but as actions EAS Participants "must" or "are required" to take. A copy of the FCC release can be found here, but the full text is below:

Urgent Advisory: Immediate actions to be taken regarding CAP EAS device security.

All EAS Participants are required to take immediate action to secure their CAP EAS equipment, including resetting passwords, and ensuring CAP EAS equipment is secured behind properly configured firewalls and other defensive measures. All CAP EAS equipment manufacturer models are included in this advisory.

All Broadcast and Cable EAS Participants are urged to take the following actions immediately

  1. EAS Participants must change all passwords on their CAP EAS equipment from default factory settings, including administrator and user accounts.
  2. EAS Participants are also urged to ensure that their firewalls and other solutions are properly configured and up-to-date.
  3. EAS Participants are further advised to examine their CAP EAS equipment to ensure that no unauthorized alerts or messages have been set (queued) for future transmission.
  4. If you are unable to reset the default passwords on your equipment, you may consider disconnecting your device's Ethernet connection until those settings have been updated.
  5. EAS Participants that have questions about securing their equipment should consult their equipment manufacturer.

I'll have more to say about the zombie apocalypse in the next few days, as I was already writing a post on the subject when the FCC release arrived. However, I wanted to get the FCC's message out to broadcasters, cable operators, and other EAS Participants quickly, so that they can take action to prevent further hoax alerts, as well as be aware of the seriousness with which the FCC is taking these false alerts. Management should make sure that their staff is on alert for unusual EAS activity, particularly during major events coverage.

While the farcical nature of the initial hoax caused more amusement than panic, it is easy to see how a more realistic message could have caused far more damage. Yesterday's events will hopefully be isolated incidents, but we will be seeing a lot more attention focused on the security, as opposed to the reliability, of the EAS system.


FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick Paul A. Cicelski

Posted January 31, 2013

By Scott R. Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

January 2013

Pillsbury's communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month's issue includes:

  • FCC Assesses $8,000 Fine for EAS Equipment Installation Problems
  • Notice of Violation Issued against FM Station for a Variety of Reasons

FCC Proposes Fine for Operational, But Not Fully Functional, EAS Equipment

The FCC has often noted the importance of the national Emergency Alert System ("EAS") while taking enforcement action against broadcast stations whose EAS equipment is not functioning or who otherwise fail to transmit required EAS messages. In a slightly atypical case, the FCC this month issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture and Order ("NAL") for $8,000 against the licensee of an FM radio station in Puerto Rico because, even though the station's EAS equipment was fully operational, the manner of installation made it incapable of broadcasting the required EAS tests automatically.

In April 2012, agents from the FCC's Enforcement Bureau inspected the station's main studio and discovered that the EAS equipment was installed in such a way that it was not able to automatically interrupt programming to transmit an EAS message. Section 11.35 of the FCC's Rules requires that all broadcast stations have EAS equipment that is fully operational so that the monitoring and transmitting functions are available when the station is in operation. The Rules further require that broadcast stations be able to receive EAS messages, interrupt on-air programming, and transmit required EAS messages. When a facility is unattended, automatic systems must be in place to perform these functions. During the inspection, the station's director admitted that the EAS equipment was not capable of transmitting an EAS message without someone manually reducing the on-air programming volume. He further admitted that the equipment had been in this condition since at least September 2011, if not earlier.

The station broadcast programming 24 hours a day, but was only staffed from 6:00 am to 7:00 pm. As a result, when the station was unattended, it could not interrupt programming to transmit EAS messages. The base forfeiture for failing to maintain operational EAS equipment is $8,000, which the FCC thought was appropriate in this case. The FCC also directed the licensee to submit a written statement indicating that the EAS equipment is now fully operational at all times, particularly when unattended, and otherwise in full compliance with the FCC's rules.

FM Station Receives Notice of Violation for an Assortment of Violations

At the end of last month, the FCC issued a Notice of Violation ("NOV") against the licensee of an FM radio station in Texas based upon an October 2012 inspection by an agent from the Enforcement Bureau. The agent concluded that the licensee was violating a number of FCC rules.

Section 73.1350 of the FCC's Rules requires that licensees establish monitoring procedures to ensure that the equipment used by a station complies with FCC rules. Upon inspection, the FCC agents found no records indicating that the licensee had established or implemented such monitoring procedures, and the station's chief engineer had difficulty monitoring the equipment's output when asked to do so by the agent. Sections 73.1870 and 73.3526 also require that a chief operator be designated, that designation be posted with the station's license at the main studio, and a copy of the station's current authorization be kept in the station's public inspection file. At the time of the inspection, the NOV indicated there was no written designation of the chief operator and the station's license renewal authorization was not at the station's main studio.

During the inspection, the agent also found that the FM station's EAS equipment was unable to send and receive tests and was not properly installed to transmit the required weekly and monthly tests. The licensee also did not have any EAS logs documenting the tests sent and received and, if tests were not sent or received, the reasons why those tests were not sent or received, all in violation of Section 11.35 of the FCC's Rules.

Finally, pursuant to Section 73.1560 of the FCC's Rules, if a station operates at reduced power for 10 consecutive days, it must notify the FCC of that fact. Operation at reduced power for more than 30 days requires the licensee to obtain a grant of Special Temporary Authority from the FCC for such operation. In this instance, the FM station had been operating at reduced power for 14 consecutive days, and the FCC found no indication that it had been notified by the licensee of the station's reduced power operations.

As a result of the NOV, the licensee must submit a written response, explaining each alleged violation and providing a description and timeline of any corrective actions the licensee will take to bring its operations into compliance with the FCC's rules. The FCC may elect to assess a fine or take other enforcement action against the station in the future if it ultimately determines the facts call for such a response.

A PDF version of this article can be found at FCC Enforcement Monitor.


FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick

Posted September 28, 2012

By Scott R. Flick and Lauren A. Birzon

September 2012
Pillsbury's communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month's issue includes:

  • FCC Follows Up a $25,000 Fine With a $236,500 Fine
  • Two Tower Owners Fined for Fading Paint

FCC Issues Second Fine to Cable TV Operator for $236,500
As we previously reported in October 2011, the operator of a cable television system in Florida was fined $25,000 for a variety of violations of the FCC's Rules, including failing to install and maintain operational Emergency Alert System ("EAS") equipment, failing to operate its system within the required cable signal leakage limits, and failing to register the cable system with the FCC. This month, the FCC issued a second Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture and Order ("NAL") to the operator for continued violations of the FCC's cable signal leakage and EAS rules and for failing to respond to communications from the FCC requiring that the operator submit a written statement of compliance.

In January 2011, agents from the Tampa Office of the FCC's Enforcement Bureau inspected the cable system and discovered extensive signal leakage, prompting the issuance of a NAL in 2011. The FCC has established signal leakage rules to reduce emissions that could cause interference with aviation frequencies. Sections 76.605 and 76.611 of the FCC's Rules establish a maximum cable signal leakage standard of 20 microvolts per meter ("µV/m") for any point in the system and a maximum Cumulative Leak Index ("CLI") of 64. If potentially harmful interference cannot be eliminated, the FCC's Rules require that the system immediately suspend operations following notification from the FCC's local field office. Normal operations cannot resume until the interference has been eliminated "to the satisfaction of" the FCC's local field office.

In early September 2011, agents from the Enforcement Bureau conducted a follow-up inspection of the cable system. During the inspection, the agents discovered 33 leakages, 22 of which measured over 100 µV/m, and found that the CLI for the system was 86.97, well in excess of the maximum permitted. Two days after the inspection, the local field office issued an Order to Cease Operations, directing the cable system to cease operations until the leakages were eliminated and to seek written approval from the local field office prior to resuming normal operations. At the time of its issuance, the President of the cable system verbally consented to abide by the terms of the Order. However, the cable system operator never contacted the field office to seek approval to resume operations, and the field office has yet to approve further cable system operations.

Between September 2011 and March 2012, agents from the FCC inspected the cable system an additional five times. During those inspections, the agents found that not only had the cable system resumed operation without permission, but they once again observed numerous signal leakages during each inspection.

Continue reading "FCC Enforcement Monitor"


FCC Enforcement Monitor

Scott R. Flick

Posted July 30, 2012

By Scott R. Flick and Lauren A. Birzon

July 2012
Pillsbury's communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month's issue includes:

  • FCC Assesses $68,000 in Fines for Unauthorized STL Operations
  • EAS Failures Lead to $8,000 Fine
Licensee in Wyoming Slammed with $68,000 in Proposed Fines for STL Operations July was not a good month for the licensee of FM radio stations located in Casper, Wyoming. The FCC issued four separate Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture ("NAL") against the licensee for a total forfeiture amount of $68,000.

In August 2011, an agent from the FCC's Enforcement Bureau inspected the main studios of the licensee's four FM radio stations and the corresponding studio transmitter links ("STL") for each station. In the first of the four NALs, the agent discovered that although the station's STL was operating on its authorized frequency, the STL was operating at the site of the station's main studio, 0.3 miles away from the STL's authorized location.

In December 2011, the Enforcement Bureau issued a Letter of Inquiry ("LOI") to investigate. In the licensee's delayed response to the LOI in April 2012, the licensee admitted that the STL had been the primary delivery mechanism for the FM station's programming since 2001 and that an application to change the location of the STL "should have been filed" when the station moved its main studio ten years earlier. Only after the fact (in May 2012) did the licensee file an application to modify the STL's authorized location. According to Section 1.903(a) of the FCC's Rules, stations must operate in accordance with applicable rules and with a valid authorization granted by the FCC, and the base forfeiture for operating at an unauthorized location is $4,000. Here, the FCC decided that an upward adjustment of an additional $4,000 was warranted because the STL had been operating at the unauthorized location for ten years.

Continue reading "FCC Enforcement Monitor"


Revamped EAS Rules Go Into Effect April 23

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted March 22, 2012

By Paul A. Cicelski

Earlier today, the FCC's Fifth Report and Order revising the Part 11 EAS Rules and codifying the obligation that EAS Participants be able to process alert messages formatted in the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) was published in the Federal Register. As a result of today's Federal Register publication, the primary rule changes adopted by the FCC in the Order will be effective April 23, 2012.

If you recall from my previous posts on the matter found here and here, the main focus of the FCC's Order was to specify the manner in which EAS Participants must be able to receive CAP-formatted alert messages and to clarify the FCC's Part 11 Rules. Among other things, the FCC took the following actions in its Order:

  • It required EAS Participants to be able to convert CAP-formatted EAS messages into messages that comply with the EAS Protocol requirements, following the conversion procedures described in the EAS-CAP Industry Group's (ECIG's) Implementation Guide;
  • It required EAS Participants to monitor FEMA's IPAWS system for federal CAP-formatted alert messages using whatever interface technology is appropriate;
  • It adopted rules to generally allow EAS Participants to use "intermediary devices" to meet CAP requirements;
  • It required EAS Participants to use the enhanced text in CAP messages to meet the video display requirements; and
  • It adopted streamlined procedures for equipment certification that take into account standards and testing procedures adopted by FEMA.

Although the FCC's new rules will be on the books as of next month, EAS Participants actually have until June 30, 2012 to install the equipment necessary to receive and convert CAP-formatted EAS alerts. When this deadline hits, five years or so of FCC CAP-related FCC decisions will come to a close. But don't worry, the FCC and FEMA have already indicated that CAP is only the beginning of the digital emergency alert era and that more proceedings related to the so-called "next generation" of emergency alerting, including improving the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), will likely be coming soon. Stay tuned.


FCC Revamps Its EAS Rules

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted January 12, 2012

By Paul A. Cicelski

It is clear to anyone paying attention that the FCC (along with FEMA) has been working diligently to improve the Nation's Emergency Alert System (EAS). In the last few years alone, the FCC has, among other things, initiated proceedings requiring EAS Participants to accept messages using a common EAS messaging protocol (CAP) for the next generation of EAS delivery; provided guidance regarding "live code" testing of EAS; adopted standards for wireless carriers to receive and deliver emergency alerts via mobile devices; and conducted the first ever nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System.

In its latest effort, the FCC issued a Report and Order earlier this week revising the FCC's Part 11 EAS Rules to specify the manner in which EAS Participants must be able to receive CAP-formatted alert messages, and making other changes to clarify and streamline the Part 11 Rules. As I reported previously, all EAS Participants are required to be able to receive CAP-formatted EAS alerts no later than June 30, 2012.

The FCC's latest Order focuses on the steps necessary to ensure that CAP messages can be processed in the same manner as the currently-used protocol, Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME). The FCC concludes that, for at least the time being, it should maintain the existing legacy EAS daisy chain, including using the legacy SAME protocol, because switching over to a fully CAP-centric EAS system is currently technolocigally infeasible given that most EAS Participants can receive, but are unable to pass along, messages using CAP. Thus, the FCC has a adopted a "CAP-in, SAME-out" transitional approach where EAS equipment will be required to receive and convert CAP-formatted messages into a SAME-compliant message to be sent downstream. In doing so, the FCC agreed with a majority of the commenters in the proceeding, including the National Association of Broadcasters, who argued that "there is a definite value in retaining the current 'daisy-chain' EAS distribution system as a proven, redundant method of delivering public alerts." The FCC's decision is also consistent with comments filed by a consortium of the State Broadcasters Associations, who stated that "it makes little sense for the FCC to adopt sweeping Next Generation EAS rule changes at this time when legacy EAS, as governed by the Commission's current Part 11 Rules, is going to be around for the foreseeable future."

While the FCC's Order is limited in scope, it is not limited in length, coming in at 130 pages. Highlights of the Order that are of particular interest for EAS Participants include the following:

  • EAS Participants will be required to use the procedures for message conversion in the EAS-CAP Industry Group's (ECIG's) ECIG Implementation Guide, which was adopted by FEMA on September 30, 2010. Among other things, the ECIG Guide outlines how parties can convert CAP-formatted messages into SAME-compliant messages.
  • The FCC has decided that it would be unrealistic to require EAS Participants to use a specific technical standard for CAP monitoring. As a result, while EAS Participants will be required to monitor FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) system for federal CAP-formatted alert messages, they will be permitted to do so using whatever interface technology is appropriate for them as long as the equipment used is able to interface with IPAWS.
  • The Order states that the FCC will allow EAS Participants to meet their obligation to receive and process CAP messages by using intermediary devices (stand-alone devices capable of decoding CAP-formatted messages) in tandem with their existing legacy EAS equipment.
  • Among a series of Part 11 Rule revisions, the FCC is amending Part 11 to require EAS Participants to use the enhanced rich text data in CAP messages to create video crawl displays.
  • The Order indicates that the FCC will allow parties to file for waivers of the requirement to monitor, receive, and process CAP-formatted messages. The FCC indicates that a lack of broadband Internet access will create a presumption in favor of a waiver. However, it is important to note that the FCC has limited such waivers to six months, with the option to renew if circumstances do not change.
  • As part of a lengthy discussion, the Order adopts streamlined procedures for EAS equipment certification that take into account the standards and testing procedures adopted by the current FEMA IPAWS Conformity Assessment Program for CAP products. In doing so, the FCC is also incorporating conformance with the ECIG Implementation Guide into the certification process.
  • The Order also streamlines rules governing the processing of Emergency Action Notifications (EAN) and eliminates several provisions of Part 11, including the Emergency Action Termination (EAT) event code and Non-Participating National (NN) status.
The FCC also agreed with a proposal advanced by the State Broadcasters Associations and others to eliminate the requirement that EAS Participants receive and transmit CAP-formatted messages initiated by state governors. The FCC agreed that the gubernatorial requirement should be eliminated because "there is near universal voluntary participation by EAS Participants in carrying state and local EAS messages ... [and] having an enforceable means to guarantee such carriage seems unnecessary."

As even the highly condensed summary above indicates, the FCC's Order is lengthy, very technical at times, and includes many rule changes and tweaks that EAS Participants will need to learn. EAS Participants should therefore become very familiar with the Order if they are going to be able to comply with these requirements going forward. They will also need to stay tuned for further developments in this rapidly changing area. With the June 30, 2012, CAP-compliance deadline growing nearer every day, EAS will remain a lively area for the FCC in the coming months.


Filings on National EAS Test Results Due Next Week

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted December 22, 2011

By Paul A. Cicelski

In what now seems like ages ago, the FCC and FEMA conducted the first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System back on November 9, 2011. While the FCC and FEMA are continuing to review and analyze what went right and what went wrong during the national test, EAS Participants should not forget that their work may not be done. As we discussed immediately following the test, the FCC has mandated that EAS Participants submit the full results of their test to the FCC, either online or on paper, no later than December 27, 2011.

I reported back in October that the FCC created three separate forms for purposes of reporting a station's test results. Stations should have completed Form 1 prior to the test, providing background information regarding the station's facilities and equipment, and Form 2 on or as close as possible to the November 9 test date, providing information on whether or not the station received the national test alert and whether the alert was passed along.

In Form 3, the FCC has asked for more detailed information on the success or failure of the test. We were the first to point out publicly that there is a conflict in dates between the FCC's form page on the website which indicates that the deadline is December 24, and the FCC's National EAS Test Public Notice which indicates that the deadline is December 27. However, the FCC's filing rules and discussions we have had with FCC staff confirm that the official deadline is December 27.

So if you have not done so already, make sure to submit the required information about the success or failure of your EAS equipment during the national test prior to next week's deadline.


Breaking In the EAS System

Scott R. Flick Paul A. Cicelski

Posted November 11, 2011

By Scott R. Flick and Paul Cicelski

In its various incarnations -- CONELRAD, the Emergency Broadcast System, the Emergency Alert System, and soon, the EAS CAP system -- America's public warning system has much in common with a vintage automobile that has been taken out of the garage only for short trips. In those short trips (mostly state and local tests and alerts), it has performed adequately, but until this week's national test, we never had a chance to take it out on the open road and see what it could really do.

Now that the first national EAS test is behind us, we know that the system isn't broken, but that it definitely will benefit from this breaking in process. That process, which necessarily includes extensive analysis of this week's test, will reveal numerous ways in which the system can be tweaked for better and more reliable performance under open road conditions. The basic system appears to have run fine; the message got out to the public (though obviously better in some locations than others).

Unlike the relative simplicity of an automobile, however, the EAS system is one of the largest pieces of machinery in the world, having immense geographic scope and a staggering number of components. Getting all of those components to function smoothly together is a complex task that requires much more effort than the typical automotive tune up. Its performance grows more impressive when you remember that most of those components are independently (and privately) owned and operated, and are not supported by federal funding. The EAS system is perhaps the ultimate public-private partnership.

While it is too early to provide a detailed assessment of the areas where the functioning of the system went astray, as we indicated previously, the purpose of the test was to help FEMA, the FCC, and EAS Participants determine the reliability of the EAS system and where it needs improvement, and the test certainly accomplished that. There were a number of issues uncovered with regard to cable and satellite alerts, as well as individual radio and television stations in Oregon and a number of other locations apparently not receiving the test, excessive background audio noise in the test message, some television stations receiving video but no audio, and header codes apparently being sent twice. While the press has understandably focused on areas where problems arose, initial reports seem to indicate that the alert was heard in the vast majority of locations, and that the next area to focus on is ensuring that the content of the alert itself is clear and understandable to the public.

According to the FCC, it and FEMA will now use the results of the test "to identify gaps and generate a comprehensive set of data to help strengthen our ability to communicate during real emergencies. Based on preliminary data, media outlets in large portions of the country successfully received the test message, but it wasn't received by some viewers or listeners. We are currently in the process of collecting and analyzing data, and will reach a conclusion when that process is complete."

EAS Participants should remember that just because the national test is over, their work is not done. As we discussed in October, the FCC is encouraging online reporting of each Participant's test results as soon as possible and has mandated that the information be submitted to the FCC no later than December 27, 2011 (either online or on paper).

In the meantime, that noise you hear coming from the nation's garage will be thousands of EAS Participants, EAS equipment manufacturers, and government officials tuning and tweaking the EAS system for its next run on the open road.