The FCC has slowly but surely been striving to improve the nation’s Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) to improve safety warnings to the public. In its most recent effort to achieve this goal, the FCC issued an Order last week updating its rules to establish operational standards to be used during national EAS tests and emergencies. According to the FCC, the release of the Order is meant to “help facilitate the use of EAS in a way that maximizes its overall effectiveness as a public warning and alert system.” The FCC’s rule changes were made in part to respond to problems that occurred during the first nationwide EAS test, which took place in November of 2011.
The FCC’s actions should come as no surprise to those following our reporting on EAS both before and after the first nationwide test. As a refresher, in the Commission’s 2013 EAS Report Strengthening the Emergency Alert System (EAS): Lessons Learned from the Nationwide EAS Test, the FCC concluded that a number of technical changes could be made to improve EAS and the national alerting system. Among other things, the first nationwide EAS test revealed that many encoders/decoders did not receive or transmit the test because the “location code” sent was “Washington, DC”, which those encoders/decoders did not recognize as being relevant to their local area.
To address this error, the FCC will require EAS participants to be able to receive and process a national location code. Specifically, the Commission has adopted “six zeroes” (000000) as the national location code pertaining to every state and county in the U.S. in order to make EAS consistent with Common Alerting Protocol (“CAP”) standards. This requirement will kick in one year from the effective date of the new rules (the effective date is thirty days after the Order is published in the Federal Register). EAS Participants should be aware that the change to the “six zeroes” national code could make some older “legacy” EAS equipment obsolete, or require that existing EAS equipment software be updated.
The Order also adopted a new rule regarding the use of a National Periodic Test (“NPT”) event code for future EAS testing, which is designed to bring consistency to the operation of EAS equipment in future national, regional, state, and local activations. The FCC determined that using the NPT for national tests would be a less burdensome alternative to using the Emergency Alert Notification (“EAN”) code. This is because the EAN has characteristics that are different than standard event codes, which include having maximum authority to supersede any other live alert or event as well as having no definitive duration. In contrast, the NPT is treated just like other codes, has a duration of two minutes, is already included in Part 11 of the FCC’s Rules, and is therefore already programmed into most EAS equipment. Just like the “six zeroes” for the national location code, all EAS receivers will need to be able to receive the NPT code within one year from the effective date of the new rules.
The FCC is also creating a new and permanent “Electronic Test Reporting System” (“ETRS”) and is mandating that all EAS Participants use the ETRS to electronically file test results with the FCC immediately following any nationwide EAS test. As many filers may recall, a number of problems occurred with the previous electronic filing system, including not providing filers with confirmation of having filed, and not allowing any updates or corrections to a report after it has been filed. These glitches will hopefully be corrected, and the FCC believes that data retrieved from its new ETRS will be usable to create a planned “FCC Mapbook” database that organizes stations and cable systems by their state, EAS Local Area, and EAS designation. EAS Participants are required to complete the identifying information initially required by the ETRS within sixty days of the effective date of the new ETRS rules, or within sixty days of the launch of the ETRS, whichever is later.
Lastly, the FCC is requiring EAS Participants to comply with minimum accessibility rules to ensure that EAS visual messages are accessible to all members of the public, including those with disabilities. The Order discussed and adopted new requirements for the following three operational areas in particular: (1) display legibility; (2) completeness; and (3) placement. Regarding display legibility, the FCC amended its rules to require that displays be “in a size, color, contrast, location, and speed that is readily readable and understandable.” For completeness, the FCC amended its rules to require that the EAS visual message “be displayed in its entirety at least once during any EAS alert message.” Finally, for placement, the FCC reiterated its requirement that the EAS visual message “be displayed at the top of the television screen or where it will not interfere with other video messages,” and amended its rules to require that the visual message not “(1) contain overlapping lines of EAS text or (2) extend beyond the viewable display except for crawls that intentionally scroll on and off of the screen.” These new requirements will go into effect six months after their effective date, which is thirty days after their publication in the Federal Register.
Some of these deadlines may seem far in the future, but it is important that EAS Participants be certain that they are capable of processing the NPT and six zeroes location code sooner rather than later. Those unwilling to heed this advice should be aware that the Order specifically states that the Media Bureau will work closely with the Enforcement Bureau to ensure that the new national test rules are strictly followed. In other words, parties that failed to adequately perform (or even participate in) the last national EAS test can expect the FCC to be much sterner the next time around.