Articles Posted in Emergency Alert System

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Earlier today, the FCC released a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture against CBS for false EAS alerting, which is FCC-speak for “CBS, tell us why we shouldn’t fine you $272,000 for airing a fake EAS alert tone.”  We’ve written on a number of occasions about FCC fines for airing false EAS alert tones (see, for example, here, here and here).  We’ve also written about false EAS alerts that were unintentionally aired, with my personal favorite in that category being EAS Alerts and the Zombie Apocalypse Make Skynet a Reality.  However, fines for airing false EAS tones have become sufficiently common in recent years that we have largely stopped writing about them.

Today’s decision was a bit different, however.  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….” False EAS alerts have typically popped up in commercials as a way of getting jaded viewers’ and listeners’ attention, which makes them challenging to successfully defend.  After all, the advertiser in that scenario is typically counting on the alert tone to draw attention to the ad for reasons entirely unconnected to public safety.  While the advertiser might claim that this prohibition violates its First Amendment rights, that’s not likely a winning argument since commercial speech receives reduced First Amendment protection (which is why, for example, the Federal Trade Commission can prohibit false advertising).

But what happens when the use of the alert tone is not in an ad?  In the case of CBS, the FCC succinctly describes the offending content (which you can also view here) as:

CBS admits that it transmitted the program Young Sheldon on April 12, 2018, which included a “tornado warning sound effect integral to a story line about a family’s visceral reaction to a life‐threatening emergency and how surviving a tornado changed family relationships.”

While the FCC acknowledged that CBS made efforts to ensure the tone was a simulation that did not trigger EAS equipment, the FCC noted that Section 11.45 still prohibits simulations of an EAS tone.  Among other defenses CBS raised in response to the FCC’s assertion that the broadcast violated Section 11.45, it argued that no viewer would be so confused as to think it was a real emergency, and that the broadcast is protected by the First Amendment to boot.  That’s where this case gets interesting.

The FCC is effectively claiming that CBS falsely yelled “fire” in a crowded theater, which is the well-established exception to First Amendment protections.  CBS, on the other hand, is countering that it only yelled “boogeyman”, and that any reasonable viewer isn’t going to panic, because the public knows the difference between real and fictional things.

For students of the First Amendment, the part that first catches the eye is the absolutism of the Commission’s decision.  Only very rarely does the First Amendment permit blanket bans on particular speech in all circumstances.  While you may be prosecuted for yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, you can, for example, say it if you are in command of a firing squad.

The FCC’s treatment of the EAS tone as sacrosanct admittedly makes it difficult for a drama to realistically depict an emergency and people’s reaction to it.  Whenever a particular type of content is forbidden in all circumstances except where the government specifically authorizes it, First Amendment issues inevitably arise.

In today’s decision, the FCC presented three reasons to justify the blanket prohibition.  These would be to “(1) prevent consumer confusion at the moment of a broadcast of the Tones, (2) prevent the inadvertent technical triggering of additional EAS warnings, and (3) prevent the accretion of non-emergency uses of the Tones that will dull consumers’ attentiveness to the public-safety import of the sounds.”  While the FCC had to concede that CBS’s efforts to modify the tone had been successful in preventing the triggering of additional EAS warnings, it was not convinced that consumer confusion could not have occurred, and was certainly concerned about the public getting alert fatigue.

But it’s not really the fact that the FCC rejected CBS’s arguments that is of interest to broadcasters, but how it was done.  First, the Commission noted the now archaic (but admittedly not yet overruled) court precedent that content on broadcast stations receives a lower level of First Amendment protection than all other media.  Whether that still makes sense in the modern era, the FCC’s argument creates the very real possibility that false EAS alert tones could be forbidden on broadcast TV, where the legal standard of First Amendment review is “intermediate scrutiny”, but be constitutionally protected on cable TV, where restrictions on content must meet the far tighter “strict scrutiny” standard.  Since EAS alerts are also transmitted by cable systems, however, the risk of public confusion and alert fatigue is the same on cable as it is on broadcast TV.  That raises the question of how strong the government’s interest in prohibiting false EAS alert tone simulations on broadcast TV can be if those same false alert tones might be constitutionally protected on cable TV programs.

Seeing that trap, the FCC tried to avoid it by arguing that even though First Amendment protections are reduced for CBS as a broadcaster, it doesn’t matter, because the government’s interest in preventing public confusion and alert fatigue is so compelling as to survive strict scrutiny under the First Amendment, allowing the rule to also be enforced against cable TV providers.

Public safety can certainly be a compelling government interest.  However, to survive strict scrutiny, a regulation must also be “narrowly tailored” to further the government’s compelling interest, and be the “least restrictive means” for doing so.  A blanket government ban on using even a simulation of the EAS tone would probably have a tough time surviving strict scrutiny under the First Amendment, but if the FCC could argue to a court that there is something uniquely valuable about the public hearing the tone only when there is an actual emergency, a court might well agree.

But that’s where the FCC may have undercut its own argument.  In July 2018, the FCC modified its rules to allow the airing of “the EAS Attention Signal and a simulation of the EAS codes as provided by FEMA” where they are used in EAS Public Service Announcements provided by “federal, state, and local government entities or non-governmental organizations, to raise public awareness about emergency alerting.”  To avoid confusion, such messages must state that the tone is being presented in the context of a PSA for the purpose of educating the public about EAS.

It would be challenging for the FCC to successfully argue in court that a single use of a simulated EAS tone creates listener fatigue when it has just authorized unlimited use of the actual tone in PSAs.  Similarly, the FCC weakened its argument that any non-emergency use of the tone inevitably leads to public confusion, when, by requiring the PSAs to contain a disclaimer letting the public know it is not an emergency, the FCC concedes that it is possible to present the tone (or a simulation thereof) in a manner that does not confuse the public.

That would seem to make it a a finding of fact as to whether a particular use of a simulated tone is likely to cause public confusion versus public education, and to be candid, a dramatic representation of a family reacting to an EAS tone probably conveys the importance of the tone far better than a PSA that most viewers will fast-forward past (or miss while getting a sandwich).  Admittedly, that is a slippery slope, but First Amendment analysis perpetually lives on that slope.

Regardless of how a court might balance these competing interests, the real irony of the whole affair is that Young Sheldon is set in Texas circa 1989-90.  The Emergency Alert System was not activated until 1997, meaning that a realistic portrayal of a tornado watch in 1990 would have featured the much different twin-frequency monotone Attention Signal of the earlier Emergency Broadcast System.  What’s the irony, you say?  The FCC’s restrictions on using the EBS tone outside of an emergency were eliminated twenty years ago.  Young Sheldon could have been both historically accurate and FCC-compliant had it just used the EBS tone instead.

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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:

  • Big-4 Network, Among Others, Settles With FCC Over Emergency Alert Tone Violations
  • Despite Self-Disclosure, Sponsorship ID Violations Land $233,000 Proposed Fine
  • Topeka TV Licensee Enters Into Consent Decree Over Late-Filed KidVid Reports

False Alarm: FCC Enters Into Multiple Consent Decrees Over Emergency Alert Tone Violations

In a single day last week, the FCC announced four separate Consent Decrees in response to unauthorized uses of the Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) tone across various media outlets.  The parent companies of a Big-4 broadcast network and two cable channels, as well as the licensee of two southern California FM stations, each agreed to significant payments to settle investigations into violations of the FCC’s EAS rules.  According to the Consent Decrees, unauthorized emergency tones have reached hundreds of millions of Americans in the past two years alone.

The Emergency Alert System is a nationwide warning system operated by the FCC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency that allows authorized public agencies to alert the public about urgent situations, including natural disasters and other incidents that require immediate attention.  Once the system is activated, television and radio broadcasters, cable television operators, and other EAS “participants” begin transmitting emergency messages with distinct attention tones.  These tones consist of coded signals that are embedded with information about the emergency and are capable of activating emergency equipment.  Wireless Emergency Alerts (“WEA”), which deliver messages to the public via mobile phones and other wireless devices, also use attention signals.

Emergency tones may not be transmitted except in cases of: (1) actual emergencies; (2) official tests of the emergency system; and (3) authorized public service announcements.  In an accompanying Enforcement Advisory published on the same day as the Consent Decrees, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau noted that wrongful use of the tones can result in false activations of the EAS, as well as “alert fatigue,” in which “the public becomes desensitized to the alerts, leading people to ignore potentially life-saving warnings and information.”

For the Big-4 network, it all started with a joke.  Around the time of last year’s nationwide EAS test, a late-night network talk show parodied the test in a sketch that incorporated emergency tones.  According to the Consent Decree, the network’s programming reaches almost all US television households through hundreds of local television affiliates, as well as through the network’s owned and operated stations.  Shortly after the episode aired, the company removed the offending portions of the program from its website and other streaming sites and did not rebroadcast the episode.  Despite these remedial actions, the damage was already done; in response to the Enforcement Bureau’s investigation, the network’s parent company agreed to pay a $395,000 “civil penalty.”

The parent companies of two major cable channels entered into similar agreements.  In one instance from this past year, an episode of a popular show set in a zombie-infested post-apocalyptic world used simulated EAS tones on multiple occasions over the course of an hour.  That episode was transmitted on eight separate occasions over a two-month period.  According to the Consent Decree, within weeks of the episode’s debut, the Enforcement Bureau reached out to the network regarding the unauthorized uses of the tone and, after a brief investigation, the network’s parent company agreed to pay $104,000 to resolve the matter. Continue reading →

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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:

  • Investigation Into Undisclosed Radio Station Owner With a History of Felonies Leads to Hearing Designation Order
  • FCC Settles With Alaskan Broadcaster After Disastrous Station Inspection
  • FCC Reinstates Licenses for Tennessee and Alabama Radio Stations, Then Immediately Threatens to Revoke Them

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Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) formally notified the FCC that FEMA has scheduled the next nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) for August 7, 2019 at 2:20 p.m. FEMA states that this year’s test will differ from the nationwide tests that have been conducted over the past several years in that it will be issued through the National Public Warning System, composed of FEMA-designated Primary Entry Point facilities, to test the readiness of the EAS to function in the absence of Internet connectivity.

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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:

  • Oregon LPFM Station Warned Over Emergency Alert System Violations
  • Pennsylvania Man Accused of Interfering With Local Fire Department Operations
  • Earth Station Transmission Problems Lead to Warning Against Florida Wireless Licensee

This is Not a Test: Low Power FM Station Warned Over Emergency Alert Violations

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau presented a Notice of Violation (“NOV”) to the licensee of a Portland, Oregon low-power FM radio station for a number of violations relating to the Emergency Alert System. The licensee is a local cultural community center that broadcasts Russian-language programming to the area’s Eastern European community.

The Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) is a nationwide warning system that allows authorized state and national public agencies to alert the public about urgent situations, including natural disasters and other incidents that require immediate attention.  The EAS is jointly operated by the FCC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration.  Local radio stations make up a vital component of the system by monitoring authorized sources for alerts and rapidly relaying these emergency messages.  Such stations are referred to as “EAS participants.”  Each state is responsible for creating a state EAS plan, which includes designating in-state stations that other stations must constantly monitor for alerts.

Section 11.15 of the FCC’s Rules requires that a copy of the EAS Operating Handbook be located “at normal duty stations or EAS equipment locations when an operator is required to be on duty.”  Section 11 of the Rules also requires EAS participants to monitor two sources, which are specified in each state’s respective EAS plan.

In February 2019, Enforcement Bureau agents inspected the Portland station and discovered two violations of the EAS Rules.  According to the NOV, the station was unable to produce its copy of the EAS Operating Handbook.  The agents also discovered a monitoring error.  The most recent Oregon State Emergency Alert Plan required the station to monitor two specific Portland area FM stations.  During the inspection, the agents found the LPFM station had instead been monitoring a different station.

The licensee has 20 days to respond to the NOV.  In its response, it must provide: (1) an explanation of each violation; (2) a description of the licensee’s corrective actions; and (3) a timeline for completion of these actions.  The FCC will then consider the licensee’s responses and all relevant information to determine what, if any, enforcement action it will take against the licensee for the violations.

State Your Emergency: FCC Accuses Pennsylvania Man of Interfering With Safety Services

In a Notice of Unlicensed Operation and Notification of Harmful Interference (“Notice”), the FCC accused a man of using a two-way radio to cause harmful interference to a local emergency services operation by making unauthorized transmissions on a frequency reserved for public safety.

As we discussed last year, Chairman Pai has noted that protecting public safety and emergency response communications is of the utmost importance.  The Enforcement Bureau has recently responded aggressively to interference complaints from first responders and emergency service departments, including issuing multi-thousand dollar fines.

Section 301 of the Communications Act prohibits the transmission of radio signals without prior FCC authorization.  Section 90.20 of the Rules establishes the requirements for obtaining authorization to use public safety frequencies.  The FCC reserves certain bands for first responders as “public safety spectrum.” Unauthorized transmissions on such bands can pose a threat to first responders and the general public by interfering with local emergency service operations, including police, EMS, or in this case, the fire department.

The Enforcement Bureau began its investigation after being contacted by an eastern Pennsylvania county’s Emergency Management Association.  According to the complaint, harmful interference and unauthorized transmissions were occurring on 155.190 MHz, a frequency used for local fire department communications.  The Enforcement Bureau identified a local individual as the source of the interfering transmissions.

According to the Notice, the individual admitted to operating a VHF-UHF two-way radio at 155.190 MHz, despite not being authorized to operate on that frequency.

The individual was given 10 days to respond to the Notice.  In his response, the individual must explain the steps he is taking to avoid operating on unauthorized frequencies and causing harmful interference.  It will then be up to the FCC to determine whether further enforcement action, including fines or other sanctions, is appropriate. Continue reading →

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in coordination with the FCC, announced this morning that the National Emergency Alert System (EAS) and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) tests scheduled for this Thursday, September 20, have been postponed due to “ongoing response efforts to Hurricane Florence.”

Instead, the tests will be conducted on the previously announced backup date of October 3.  The Wireless Emergency Alerts test will commence at 2:18 p.m. EDT and the EAS test will commence at 2:20 p.m. EDT on that date.  FEMA has indicated that the purpose of the tests is to “assess the operational readiness of the infrastructure for distribution of a national message and determine whether improvements are needed.”

As we previously discussed on CommLawCenter, in preparation for the national test, all EAS Participants were required to file their Form 1 with the FCC by August 27, 2018.  They were then to file their Form 2 (day of test data) on September 20, 2018, with the final test report to be filed on Form 3 by November 5, 2018.

The Form 2 (and likely the Form 3) deadline will now shift to align with the new October 3 test date.  As of the publication of this post, the FCC had not yet announced new filing deadlines, but the Form 2 will likely be due on October 3, 2018, and since the FCC’s Rules require that EAS Participants “are required to file detailed post-test data 45 days following a nationwide EAS test,” the Form 3 deadline will most likely move to November 19, 2018.  Those are just predictions, however, and broadcasters and other EAS Participants should watch for a formal announcement from the FCC with the new filing deadlines.

[Editor’s Note: Subsequent to publication, the FCC did in fact release a Public Notice confirming the October 3 deadline for Form 2, and the November 19 deadline for Form 3.]

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The FCC and FEMA have established September 20, 2018 as the date for the next nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS).  The nationwide test is designed to study the effectiveness of the EAS and to monitor the performance of EAS participants.  The Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system will be tested immediately prior to the test of the EAS.  The FCC and FEMA have designated October 3, 2018 as the back-up date should circumstances prevent testing on September 20.

While the test itself is a month away, all EAS participants must file their Form One with the FCC by August 27, 2018 in preparation for the test.  To make this filing, EAS participants must log in to the EAS Test Reporting System using an FCC Username Account.  Those filers who do not already have an account can register for one in the FCC’s updated CORES system.  Once a username account is set up, it will need to be associated with a licensee’s FCC Registration Number (FRN) before the user can draft or file forms for that licensee’s station(s).  Many filers struggled to successfully register in past years, but those who participated in the annual test in 2017 should already be registered.

Form One requests information about a station’s transmitter location, EAS equipment, and the stations it is assigned to monitor.  For most EAS participants, this information will prefill from last year’s Form One (so be particularly careful reviewing it if your monitoring assignments, equipment, or something else has changed since last year).  Stations will also see an instruction to file a separate Form One for each encoder, decoder or combination unit.  Most broadcasters will likely have a combination unit and therefore only need to file a single Form One.  However, there may be situations where multiple filings are needed, for example where a cluster of co-owned radio stations share a studio but have to employ separate encoders and decoders to deal with stations in the group having different monitoring assignments.

As in the past, after the test is completed, participants must report the results of the test by filing Form Two, which requests abbreviated “day of test” data, and then Form Three, which collects more detailed data about the station’s performance.

Filing Deadlines:

  • Form One must be filed on or before August 27, 2018.
  • Form Two (“day of test” data) must be filed by 11:59 PM (EDT) on September 20, 2018.
  • Form Three must be filed on or before November 5, 2018.

Additional Requirements

To prepare for the test, the FCC recommends that EAS participants review the EAS Operating Handbook and be sure that it is available at normal duty positions or EAS equipment locations, and is otherwise readily accessible to employees responsible for managing EAS actions.

Participants should also use this time to ensure their facilities are in a state of “operational readiness.”  Operators should confirm that their EAS equipment has any necessary software and firmware upgrades and that it is capable of receiving the various test codes.  If not automatic, operators must also manually set their EAS equipment to the “official time” as established by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.  Each of these issues has been a significant cause of stations being unable to receive or transmit past tests.

Finally, the person filing for each station should verify that they have the right username, password, and licensee FRN in advance of the filing deadline.  Experience from the the past two national tests revealed that many stations were caught off guard not by the test itself, but by their inability to access the ETRS to make required filings, often because of confusion surrounding how to log in.

Summer break notwithstanding, this is one test that broadcasters should study for ahead of time.

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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 special issue takes a look at the government’s renewed efforts to scuttle Pirate Radio operations.

Since the government first began regulating the airwaves, it has struggled to eliminate unlicensed radio operators.  In its latest effort, the FCC is taking a hardline approach to this illegal behavior and is partnering with local and federal law enforcement, as well as Congress, to accomplish the task. While Chairman Pai has made clear that pirate radio prosecutions are once again a priority at the FCC, it is Commissioner O’Rielly who has been the most vocal on this front, calling for more aggressive action against unauthorized operators.  The continued prevalence of pirate radio operations has been chalked up to several factors, including insufficient enforcement mechanisms and resources, the procedural difficulties in tracking down unregulated parties, and lackadaisical enforcement until recently. Regulators and broadcast industry leaders have also expressed frustration with the whack-a-mole nature of pirate radio enforcement—shutting down one operation only to have another pop up nearby.

Real Consequences

Congress has also begun to take an interest in the issue, with the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology holding a hearing last week discussing the subject.  One of the witnesses was David Donovan, president of the New York State Broadcasters Association.  In his testimony, he listed numerous risks that unlicensed operations present to the public, including failure to adhere to Emergency Alert System rules and RF emissions limits (which can be critically important where a pirate’s antenna is mounted on a residential structure).  Pirate operators also create interference to other communications systems, including those used for public safety operations, while causing financial harm to legitimate broadcast stations by diverting advertising revenue and listeners from authorized stations.

Despite these harms, pirate operations continue to spread.  This past month, the FCC issued a Notice of Unlicensed Operation (“NOUO”) to a New Jersey individual after the FCC received complaints from the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) that an FM station’s broadcasts were causing harmful interference to aeronautical communications operating on air-to-ground frequencies.  FCC agents tracked the errant transmissions to the individual’s residence and confirmed that he was transmitting without authorization.

Days later, the FCC issued an NOUO to another New Jersey resident who was transmitting unlicensed broadcasts from a neighborhood near Newark Airport.  Once again, FCC agents were able to determine the source of the signal and found that the property owner was not licensed to broadcast on the frequency in question.

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Yesterday’s enactment of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018 (feel free to read it, it’s only 2,232 pages) was welcomed by broadcasters. If you’ve been following the trade press, you’ll know that’s largely because it not only added a billion dollars to the FCC’s fund for reimbursing broadcasters displaced by the spectrum repack, but for the first time made FM, LPTV and TV Translator stations eligible for repack reimbursement funds.

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Earlier this week, the FCC and FEMA released a final reminder that this year’s nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System will occur today, September 27, 2017 at 2:20 PM Eastern Time.  The test will be transmitted in both English and Spanish and broadcasters will choose which one to air in their communities.

The agencies had reserved October 4th as a backup date for the test in the event that an emergency was ongoing that could lead to confusion around the test.  They decided not to fall back on that option despite Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria recently causing much destruction.  They did, however, acknowledge the disruption those events caused by giving broadcasters in the affected areas additional time to meet their various filing obligations connected to the national EAS test.

Stations unaffected by the hurricanes must file a Form 2, the day-of-test reporting form, via the FCC’s Emergency Test Reporting System by 11:59 PM Eastern Time tonight (September 27).  Stations are allowed to make any corrections to their earlier-filed Form 1 submissions by that time as well.  More detailed information on a station’s performance during the test, including any issues encountered, must be submitted electronically on Form 3 no later than November 13, 2017.

As noted above, broadcasters in hurricane-affected areas (Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as portions of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) have more flexibility, and may make corrections to their Form 1, and file Form 2, as late as November 13, the national deadline for filing Form 3.

Unrelated to those Form 1, 2 and 3 filings, stations are also required to report to their State Emergency Communications Committee by November 6, 2017 any steps they have taken to distribute EAS content in languages other than English to their non-English speaking audiences.  While the FCC has not mandated the precise information to be reported, it has suggested that stations provide:

  • a description of the steps taken to make EAS content available to speakers of other languages;
  • a description of any plans made to do so in the future, along with an explanation of why or why not; and
  • any additional information that would be useful to the FCC, such as state-wide demographic information regarding languages spoken and resources used or needed to originate EAS content in languages other than English.

The State Emergency Communications Committees are then required to report this information to the FCC within six months.

This is the third nationwide EAS test, and as you would hope, each test seems to go better than the last one as bugs in the alerting chain and equipment are discovered and fixed.  While some might view it as contradictory, the twin hopes of everyone involved in today’s test is that we will eventually have a perfectly functioning national alerting system, and that it will never be needed.