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EAS Tests Soon to Become a National Affair

Late today, the FCC released an Order laying the groundwork for the first national test of the Emergency Alert System. As we noted in an earlier post, the FCC began this process nearly a year ago, when it released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking public comment on the implementation of regular national EAS tests. Today’s order modifies the FCC’s Rules to authorize such tests as well as to establish the ground rules for conducting them.

Specifically, the Order:

  • Requires all EAS participants to participate in national EAS tests scheduled by the FCC in consultation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency;
  • Requires that the first national test use the Emergency Alert Notification code, the live event code used for nationwide Presidential alerts;
  • Provides that the national test replaces the monthly and weekly EAS tests in the month and week it is held;
  • Requires the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau of the FCC provide at least two months’ public notice prior to a national test;
  • Requires EAS participants to submit test-related data within 45 days of the test;
  • Requires that test data received from EAS participants be treated as presumptively confidential, but allows it to be shared on a confidential basis with other federal agencies and state emergency management agencies that have confidentiality protection at least equal to that provided by the Freedom of Information Act; and
  • Delegates authority to the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, in consultation with FEMA and other EAS stakeholders, to establish various administrative procedures for national tests, including the location codes to be used in the alerts and the pre-test outreach to be conducted.

While many following this proceeding had anticipated that the FCC might hold off on a national test until it had modified its rules to incorporate Common Alerting Protocol and the deadline for EAS participants to install CAP-compliant equipment had passed, it appears the first national test could occur as early as this Fall. The order specifically notes that the first “national EAS test is strictly of the legacy EAS system and is independent of the transition to CAP.”

The Order notes the need for significant public outreach prior to the test (to avoid public panic), and acknowledges that, at least for the first test, EAS participants will likely get more than the minimum two months’ warning to accomplish that public education objective.

Of particular note to EAS participants is the requirement that they record and submit to the FCC within 45 days of the test a fair amount of detail regarding that participant’s performance during the test (e.g., was the alert received and passed on successfully, what equipment was used, what was the cause of any problems that occurred, etc.). In order to facilitate the submission of that data, the FCC also announced that it will be creating an electronic filing system that EAS participants may elect to use to comply with the reporting requirement.

Because the FCC wishes to encourage EAS participants to be honest in reporting failures that occur during national tests, it did note that it would treat the required submissions as a “voluntary disclosure”. In the past, the FCC has considered a licensee’s voluntary disclosure of a rule violation to be a mitigating factor that can merit a reduction in the fine or other sanction imposed. Notably, however, the FCC did not foreclose itself from issuing fines or taking other action against an EAS participant reporting a failure of its equipment/performance in the national test, particularly where the violation is “repeated, egregious, or not promptly remedied.”

As a result of today’s Order, and the wheels it puts in motion, broadcasters, cable providers, and other EAS participants will need to make sure they and their EAS equipment are ready to participate in a national EAS test as early as this Fall. The FCC, FEMA and other governmental agencies also have much to do before a national test can occur. However, today’s action clears the initial obstacles away, and will allow the FCC to achieve its goal of assessing “for the first time, the readiness and effectiveness of the EAS from top-to-bottom, i.e., from origination of an alert by the President and transmission through the entire EAS daisy chain, to reception by the American public.” That assessment has been a long time coming, and while it does present some regulatory risks for EAS participants, most will be pleased to have confirmation that the EAS equipment they have maintained day in and day out, year after year, will serve its intended purpose should a national emergency require it.