Articles Posted in Emergency Alert System

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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.

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The FCC and FEMA have established September 27, 2017 as the date for the next nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS). Like last year’s test, all EAS participants must file Form 1 a month before the test.  The Form 1 has been modified, however, requiring information that was not requested previously.  In addition, the FCC’s Emergency Test Reporting System (ETRS) has been revamped so that prior log in codes do not work and the system’s functionality is now unfamiliar to prior users.  As a result, while the Form 1 is technically due next Monday, August 28th, anyone who has not yet started the filing process should begin immediately and aim to finish the process this week.

Abandoning the ETRS log in system from the prior test, the ETRS now relies on log in information from an entirely separate FCC database, the Commission Registration System (CORES). Therefore, the first step in filing the Form 1 in the ETRS is the rather unintuitive step of establishing an FCC Username and Password in the CORES.  While this step might be simple enough in and of itself, it is important to understand that the CORES system confers control of the licensee’s Federal Registration Number (FRN) on the first person to lay claim to it.

Many broadcasters only know the FRN as the number they have to frantically search for every September when paying their Annual Regulatory Fees. But the FRN and password are increasingly used as the log in for many of the FCC’s other filing systems such as the new Licensing Management System that TV stations use for most application filings, the Universal Licensing System which is the licensing system for stations’ wireless facilities like broadcast auxiliaries and business radios, the International Bureau’s filing system for stations’ earth station facilities, and even an alternate log in for the new Online Public Inspection File.  Therefore, every station owner should establish a CORES Username and Password or have their lawyer do so on their behalf, and then claim the role of “Admin” of their FRN, even if someone else will be making their ETRS filings.

Once the licensee has claimed the Admin role for the station’s FRN, the person making the ETRS filings for the station must establish a CORES Username and Password for themselves and request that the FRN Admin associate the licensee’s FRN with their account. Only once all those steps are complete will the person making the ETRS filings be able to even draft the Form 1.

To reach the Form 1, filers should log into the ETRS using their own CORES Username and Password. A message may appear at the top of the page upon logging in saying that no FRNs are associated with the account.  If you think you have in fact associated the FRN with the account, proceed with drafting the Form 1, as the FRN may appear in the pull down menu despite that message.

Information about the station’s transmitter location, EAS equipment, and stations monitored will prefill from the Form 1 filed for the last nationwide test. This year, stations must also provide the location of their EAS receivers.  The FCC is requesting this information to be able to map where signals are received and sent so that it can better understand any communications breakdowns.  Also new this year, stations will see an instruction to file a separate Form 1 for each encoder, decoder or combination unit.  It is likely that most broadcasters have a combination unit and therefore only need to file one Form 1.  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.

So if you were procrastinating before filing the Form 1, or tried and were stymied by the FCC’s updated filing system, it’s time to get moving. Monday’s deadline is coming fast.

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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:

Headlines:

  • FCC Proposes $66,000 Fine Against Alaska Noncommercial FM Station for EAS and Other Violations
  • Man Faces $120 Million Fine for “Massive” Robocall Operation
  • FCC Proposes $1,500 Fine Against South Carolina AM Station for Late-Filed License Renewal

Alaska Noncommercial FM Station Faces $66,000 Fine for EAS and Other Violations

The FCC proposed a $66,000 fine against an Alaska noncommercial FM station for a number of violations, including actions that the FCC says “undermine the effectiveness of the Emergency Alert System (EAS).”

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.” In addition, Section 11.35(a) of the Rules states that EAS participants are responsible for ensuring that EAS equipment, such as encoders and decoders, are installed such that “monitoring and transmitting functions are available during the times the stations and system are in operation.” Also, Section 11.52(d)(1) requires EAS participants to monitor two EAS sources.

A June 2013 FCC inspection of the station’s main studio revealed several violations of the FCC’s EAS Rules. Specifically, the FCC agent found that the station (1) did not have an EAS Handbook; (2) did not have properly operating EAS equipment (because the programming and identification of the station’s EAS device was for another station); and (3) was only monitoring one EAS source.

In addition, the agent found numerous violations of the FCC’s other broadcast rules, including: (1) failure to post a valid license as required by Section 73.1230; (2) failure to maintain a public inspection file as required by Section 73.3527; (3) failure to retain the logs required by Section 73.1840; (4) failure to maintain a main studio staff under Section 73.1125(a); (5) inability to produce documentation designating a chief operator as required by Section 73.1870; and (6) failure to ensure that the station was operating in accordance with the terms of the station authorization or within variances permitted under the FCC’s technical rules, as required by Section 73.1400.

The FCC subsequently issued a Notice of Violation (“NOV”) to the station in August 2013. When the FCC did not receive a response from the station within the 20-day deadline specified in the NOV, the FCC sent a Warning Letter to the station in September 2013, and issued two additional NOVs in November 2013 and April 2016 directing the station “to provide information concerning the apparent violations described in the August 2013 NOV.” Despite signing a receipt for the April 2016 NOV, the station again failed to respond.

The base fine amounts for the apparent EAS violations, broadcast violations, and failures to respond to the NOVs total $11,000, $23,000, and $16,000 respectively. The FCC may adjust a fine upward or downward after taking into account the particular facts of each case. Here, citing the station’s failure to respond to FCC documents of four occasions, the FCC concluded that a 100 percent upward adjustment of the base fine for the failures to respond, or an additional $16,000, was warranted. As a result, the FCC proposed a total fine against the station of $66,000.

FCC Proposes $120 Million Fine for Caller ID Spoofing Operation

A Florida man’s spoofing campaign has earned him a proposed $120 million fine. The man apparently caused the display of misleading or inaccurate caller ID information (“spoofing”) on millions of calls to perpetrate an illegal robocalling campaign.

The Truth in Caller ID Act of 2009, as codified in Section 227(e) of the Communications Act and Section 64.1604 of the FCC’s Rules, prohibits any person from knowingly causing, directly or indirectly, any caller ID service to transmit or display misleading or inaccurate caller ID information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value. 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:

Headlines:

  • TV Broadcaster Agrees to $55,000 “Civil Penalty” for Airing False EAS Tones
  • Radio Broadcaster to Donate or Surrender Nine FM Stations to Resolve Investigation of Stations Being Silent for Extended Periods
  • FCC Proposes $6,000 Fine Against California TV Station for Public File and Related Violations

Broadcast of False EAS Tones Leads to $55,000 Settlement with FCC

The FCC entered into a Consent Decree with the parent company of a Florida TV station to resolve an investigation into whether the station transmitted Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) tones outside of an actual emergency.

Section 325(a) of the Communications Act prohibits any person from transmitting “any false or fraudulent signal of distress” or similar communication. Further, Section 11.45 of the FCC’s Rules prohibits transmission of “the EAS codes or Attention Signal, or a recording or simulation thereof,” unless it is “an actual National, State, or Local Area emergency or authorized test of the EAS” (emphasis added).

On August 9, 2016, the FCC received a complaint alleging that the station had “aired a commercial multiple times that improperly used the EAS data burst and tone.” The FCC subsequently began an investigation into whether the station had violated its rules governing EAS, and directed the station to respond to the allegations.  In its response, the station explained that it started airing an advertisement on August 6, 2016 for a professional football team which opened with EAS Tones, the sounds of wind and thunder, and a voiceover stating: “This is an emergency broadcast transmission. This is not a test. This is an emergency broadcast transmission. This is not a test. Please remain calm. Seek shelter.”

The station claimed that its policies and practices do not allow transmission of false EAS tones, but that it received the advertisement from an outside source and the station’s “employees apparently failed to screen the Promotion before airing it.” The station explained that when a senior member of the station’s staff saw the advertisement on August 8, 2016, he notified the general manager that it contained a prohibited use of an EAS tone, and told staff not to air it again.

The station’s parent company subsequently entered into a consent decree with the FCC to resolve the investigation, under which the company (1) admitted that the station aired material that contained simulated EAS tones absent an actual emergency or authorized test of the EAS, (2) agreed to pay a $55,000 civil penalty, and (3) agreed to implement a three-year compliance plan.

Radio Broadcaster Agrees to Donate or Surrender Nine FM Station Licenses for Failure to Operate Stations

The owner of a number of radio stations entered into a Consent Decree with the FCC to resolve an investigation into the company’s alleged failure to operate its stations during their most recent license terms.

Section 312(g) of the Communications Act prohibits extended periods of silence by licensed stations because of their obligation to serve the public by broadcasting on their allocated spectrum. Specifically, a station’s license will automatically terminate if it remains silent for twelve consecutive months unless the FCC acts to extend or reinstate the license where “the holder of the station license prevails in an administrative or judicial appeal, the applicable law changes, or for any other reason to promote equity and fairness.”  Additionally, the Act authorizes the FCC to revoke any station license for failure to operate substantially as set forth in that license, and Section 73.1740 of the FCC’s Rules establishes minimum operating requirements for broadcast stations. Continue reading →

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While some debate endlessly which content best serves the public interest, there is universal agreement that the content broadcasters air during emergencies is vital to their communities.  Whether it comes in the form of tracking a developing storm so the public can prepare, or disseminating evacuation orders and alerts, broadcasters continue to serve as the bedrock of the nation’s warning system in emergencies.  As Hurricane Matthew approaches the East Coast, TV and radio stations are hurrying to make sure they are in position to warn and inform their audiences of new developments.

Curiously, the growth of alternative information sources has only served to emphasize that in a true emergency, there is no substitute for local broadcasts.  While the last decade has brought progress in making communications infrastructure more resilient in emergencies, cable and Internet service is often disrupted in disasters, and cell phone networks, where they don’t fail outright, become overwhelmed by increased usage during a disaster.

That is why nearly a dozen states have laws on the books granting broadcast personnel First Responder/First Informer status.  These laws allow broadcasters access to crisis areas, both for reporting on a disaster and maintaining station operations throughout.  This includes granting priority to broadcasters for scarce fuel supplies (and emergency access for vehicles transporting fuel to stations).  That fuel keeps stations’ emergency generators, and the transmitters they power, running during emergencies.

Unlike communications infrastructure that requires wired connections over a broad area, or numerous short-range towers and repeaters, broadcast stations just need an upright tower or tall building for their antenna, fuel for their generator, and access for their employees to be able to reach the station’s facilities.  That resilience in extreme conditions is, however, only part of the reason local broadcast stations are critical in emergencies.  Also important is the fact that broadcast receivers are ubiquitous and easy to power.  Some estimates place the number of radios in the U.S. at nearly 600,000,000, almost double the population of the U.S.  Many of those radios are powered by replaceable batteries.  As a result, they don’t need access to the power grid for recharging like smartphones do.  A box full of batteries will bring radio service for the duration of most any emergency.

Speaking of smartphones, in part because of the importance of accessing local broadcast signals during emergencies, the big 4 wireless providers have now activated the FM chip in at least some of their smartphones.  While there are a lot of radios out there, people aren’t generally walking around with a transistor radio in their hand at all times.  Being able to access emergency broadcast information via the smartphone in your pocket ensures that even when the cell phone network has ceased to function, you still have immediate access to important local information.  In fact, even where the cell phone system is still operating and not overwhelmed by traffic, there are two good reasons for utilizing a phone’s FM receiving capability.  First, it consumes a fraction of the battery power that streaming data does, ensuring the longest battery life possible—an important factor if you don’t know where your next charge is coming from.  Second, and taking a broader perspective, utilizing the FM capability is helpful to the community at large, as the more individuals that are obtaining information by radio, the less likely the wireless network will become overwhelmed, ensuring it is available for coordination of relief efforts and other vital functions.

Because televisions have far greater power needs than radios, the typical pattern in a disaster is for people to rely on local TV to track and prepare for an impending disaster, and then switch to radio when the power goes out.  However, with people scurrying about in their cars to buy storm supplies, the portability of radio (and its universal availability in cars), makes it a big part of storm preparations too.  Conversely, those lucky enough to have power after a storm (whether by generator or good fortune) can follow the storm recovery on their TVs.  The promise of ATSC 3.0 to make broadcast television signals more accessible to mobile devices can only increase that availability in adverse conditions.

And that’s where life gets even more complicated for television broadcasters.  It’s tough enough to continue operations during a hurricane, with employees sleeping in the studio while wondering if their house is still standing.  TV stations are also required to ensure that all of their viewers, regardless of hearing or vision challenges, are able to receive the emergency information being relayed.  As a result, emergency information presented on-air aurally must also be made available visually, and emergency information presented visually must also be made available aurally.  In past disasters, the FCC has proposed fines of up to $24,000 ($8,000 per “incident”) to TV stations that effectively said “run for shelter” but didn’t air a crawl or other graphic at that time conveying the same information.

Last year, the FCC created additional obligations for relaying emergency information to all segments of the public.  The “Audible Crawl Rule”, as it has come to be known, requires TV stations to aurally present on a secondary audio stream (“SAS”) any emergency information that is provided visually in non-newscast programming. The station must insert an aural tone (both on the main video stream and the SAS) before transmitting emergency information on the SAS to differentiate that information from normal audio. This alerts the viewer to turn on the SAS and focus on the emergency content.  Think that sounds complicated?  It is, which is why stations have been working on automating the process as much as possible.

Preventing a person’s hearing or vision impairment from becoming the cause of their death or injury is certainly a worthy goal, but it isn’t hard to understand the frustration of a station employee that hasn’t slept in 24 hours trying to get emergency information out to viewers as quickly as possible, but needing to pause to ensure the appropriate graphics and SAS information is prepared and aired in order to avoid an FCC fine.  To help stations simplify that process when preparing for last year’s hurricane season, we drafted a detailed summary of the FCC’s emergency information accessibility rules titled Keep Calm and Broadcast On: A Guide for Television Stations on Airing Captions and Audible Crawls in an Emergency.  Stations whose communities will be affected by Hurricane Matthew should review it, both as a refresher on what they will need to do in the next few days, and on how best to do it.

While these rules add to a station’s challenges during an already challenging time, the FCC is doing its part as well.  Earlier today, the FCC released a Public Notice reminding broadcasters, among others, that:

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will be available to address emergency communications needs twenty-four hours a day throughout the weekend, especially relating to the effects that Hurricane Matthew may have on the Southeastern United States.

The FCC reminds emergency communications providers, including broadcasters, cable service providers, wireless and wireline service providers, satellite service providers, emergency response managers and first responders, and others needing assistance to initiate, resume, or maintain communications operations during the weekend, to contact the FCC Operations Center for assistance at 202-418-1122 or by e-mail at FCCOPCenter@fcc.gov.

Here’s hoping that the FCC’s phone doesn’t ring much in the coming days.

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The FCC has sent an email to those registered in the EAS Test Reporting System (“ETRS”) for tomorrow’s nationwide test, asking them to (1) stagger the filing of their EAS Form Two based on their time zone, and (2) not file Form Three until the day after the test.  The FCC explained that the request—the staggered filing times are not mandatory—is meant to “maximize the resources available to process Form Two filings.”

Specifically, the FCC would like EAS participants to file Form Two, “Day of Test Reporting,” in the ETRS as follows:

  • Facilities in Eastern Time Zone – 2:30 pm to 5:00 pm EDT
  • Facilities in Central Time Zone – 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm EDT (4:00 pm to 6:00 pm CDT)
  • Facilities in Mountain Time Zone – 7:00 pm to 8:00 pm EDT (5:00 pm to 6:00 pm MDT)
  • Facilities in Pacific Time Zone – 8:00 pm to 9:30 pm EDT (5:00 pm to 6:30 pm PDT)
  • Facilities in all other time zones – 9:30 pm to 11:59 pm EDT

The request seemed last-minute, coming so soon before the test, which is scheduled to take place tomorrow, Wednesday, September 28, 2016, at 2:20 pm Eastern Time (if necessary, the back-up test date will be October 5, 2016, at 2:20 pm Eastern Time).  As we previously discussed, it raised some eyebrows when the FCC announced that EAS participants are required to file Form Two by 11:59 pm Eastern Time on the same day as the test itself, leaving less than 10 hours after the test for all EAS participants to file.  The relevant FCC rule says that participants must file “within 24 hours . . . or as otherwise directed” by the FCC.  As for Form Three, “Detailed Test Reporting,” it must be filed “within 45 days following a nationwide EAS test,” which makes it due on or before November 14, 2016.

There are also new details available on what the test itself will look and sound like.  According to senior FEMA staff, the audio portion of the test, including attention signals, will last approximately 50 seconds.  In addition, FEMA was asked to delete a previously included statement in the text scroll—“No action is needed.  This is only a test”—to avoid creating a difference between the aural and visual presentations, which had the potential to generate confusion among those with hearing or vision issues.

The test will start when FEMA sends the alert message, which will be in both English and Spanish.  The alert will use a new nationwide test event code, NPT, and a new nationwide geographic zone code, 000000.  As of July 30, 2016, all EAS Participants were required to have equipment in place capable of receiving and passing these codes.  If you want to see what the 2011 test looked like for TV viewers, YouTube can help you there.

It will be interesting to see if the 2016 nationwide EAS test improves on the 2011 edition.  As we previously wrote, the FCC found a number of technical areas where the system could be improved in the 2011 test.  Let’s hope that the capacity of ETRS to process filings, or a lack thereof, is not a lesson learned from the 2016 national test.

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Those trying to keep up with the news surrounding the upcoming nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) know that a lot has been happening in a short period of time.  Below, we pull together the many recent FCC actions regarding EAS in one place for ease of reference.

Let’s start with the basics.  The FCC announced that the nationwide test will take place on Wednesday, September 28, 2016, at 2:20 pm Eastern Time, and that, if necessary, the secondary test date will be October 5, 2016.  The test will start when FEMA sends the alert message, which will be in both English and Spanish.  As we wrote last year, the alert will use a new nationwide test event code, NPT, and a new nationwide geographic zone code, 000000.  As of July 30, 2016, all EAS Participants were required to have equipment in place capable of receiving and passing these codes.  Irritated viewers and listeners will be pleased to know that the test will last less than a minute.

Next, all EAS participants must submit three forms to the FCC regarding the test.  Unlike the last nationwide test, which took place in November 2011, participants must make these filings online through the EAS Test Reporting System (ETRS), and do not have the option of filing paper copies.  Note that FM Translators, FM Boosters, LPTVs that operate as translators, satellite stations that rebroadcast all of a main station’s programming, and international stations do not have to file.

The first form, aptly named Form One, is a registration form that identifies the participant, and must be filed by August 26, 2016.  Participants then have until September 26, 2016, to “update or correct any errors” in the Form One.  This does NOT mean that you can wait until September 26th to complete and file the Form One.  According to senior FCC staff, participants that do not register by August 26th will be deemed out of compliance—the purpose of the extra month is only to allow for cleaning up minor errors.

Information regarding the registration process can be found in this June 27, 2016 Public Notice, and more detailed instructions with screenshots on how to fill out all three forms can be found in this April 18, 2016 Public Notice.  You can also contact the FCC for assistance at ETRS@fcc.gov.

But there are a few things to be aware of when you register, as ETRS has caused aggravation among many using the system.  First, the “Geographic Zone of Service” field will not necessarily prepopulate with a correct list of geographic zones unless other participants have already added those to the system.  Participants will need to consult their state EAS plan to find the correct geographic zone to list, and may have to choose the “add” option to add that zone to the system if it does not appear as an option in the drop-down list.  While this step tripped up a lot of early registrants, who then just made up the area they felt they served (e.g., listing the “tri-state area” rather than “EAS Zone 10”), a number of the state broadcasters associations have been working with the FCC to prepopulate the system with the correct EAS zones for their state.

Second, if you filled out the registration form between June 27, 2016, when ETRS became operational, and July 8, 2016, you should go back and double check that your coordinates are correct in the “Latitude” and “Longitude” fields.  Some of the coordinates are prepopulated by the system, and for a time the system was relying on incorrect location data.  So if you get an error message about your coordinates being wrong, that might be the source of your problem.

Third, don’t sweat the “Tasks” feature too much.  It probably seemed like a neat feature to have when the system was being designed, but the execution leaves something to be desired.  It tends to be more confusing than helpful, generating a new “to do” item every time you sign in.  As a result, it is not uncommon to have four duplicates of the exact same task listed, such as “File Your Form One.”

Once September 28, 2016 rolls around and the test has (hopefully) occurred, participants have only a few hours to file Form Two, Day of Test Reporting, which is comprised of “day of test” information, and is due before 11:59 pm Eastern Time on the same day as the test itself.  This gives participants less than 10 hours after the test to file Form Two, which has raised some eyebrows.  The relevant FCC rule says that participants must file “within 24 hours . . . or as otherwise directed” by the FCC.  No explanation has been provided as to why participants were given significantly less than 24 hours to file, but one must imagine that the FCC is confident that filing Form Two will be a snap, and that ETRS can handle the load of all participants using the system at the same time.

Form Three, Detailed Test Reporting, which is comprised of more detailed post-test questions, must be filed on or before November 14, 2016 using the ETRS.

In addition to the nationwide test, there continue to be other developments which EAS participants need to know about.  At the request of the National Weather Service, the FCC last month added three new EAS event codes and slightly revised the territorial boundaries for two of its location codes.  EAS uses three-character event codes to describe the nature of the alert (e.g. “TOR” for tornado), and six-digit location codes to identify the geographic area(s) to which an alert applies.

The three new codes are designed to alert the public to extreme wind and storm surge conditions in the days and hours ahead of a hurricane making landfall, when appropriate preparations can be made and loss of life is most preventable.   The first of the three new event codes is “Extreme Wind Warning” (EWW), which the National Weather Service has used for years but which was not an official EAS code.  As a result, other warning codes have been used in high wind scenarios, causing incorrect risk avoidance advice to be disseminated.  The remaining two codes relate to storm surge.  “Storm Surge Watch” (SSA) is to be used 48 hours in advance of a storm surge  and “Storm Surge Warning” (SSW) is to be used 36 hours in advance.  The two location code modifications apply to location codes 75 and 77, which correspond to offshore marine areas in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.  The modifications move the end points for both zones from Bonita Beach, Florida to Ocean Reef, Florida and are considered important to the efficiency and safety of marine operations.  More information about these changes can be found in a July 11, 2016 FCC Order.

EAS equipment manufacturers are required to integrate the new event codes and location codes into equipment yet to be made or sold, and to offer software upgrades for existing equipment, no later than six months from the effective date of the rule amendments.  The effective date of those new rules will be 30 days after publication of the rule amendments in the Federal Register, which has not yet occurred.

While use of these new codes is voluntary, EAS participants in coastal areas will be highly motivated to install upgrades to their existing equipment once those are made available by equipment manufacturers.  The manufacturers indicated to the FCC that in many cases the upgrade can be accomplished easily through a software update the manufacturers will release.  EAS participants have the option of electing precisely when to implement those upgrades.  However, beginning one year after the effective date of the new rules, any EAS participant that replaces its equipment must do so with equipment that is capable of complying with the new codes (i.e., no purchasing used equipment that does not comply).  Given the pace of EAS changes and fixes such as these, broadcasters and other EAS participants should remain alert for notifications from their equipment manufacturers reflecting when software updates or equipment upgrades become available.

While August is often a slow time for many, the increasing number of terrorist attacks around the globe has put the federal government on a fast track for ensuring the functionality of EAS in an emergency.  That urgency is now being relayed to broadcasters and other EAS participants who are at the front lines of the effort to quickly notify the public of emergency information.  For those charged with maintaining and operating EAS equipment, the next two months will be busy ones.

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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.

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The FCC announced this afternoon that it has reached an agreement with iHeartCommunications resolving “an investigation into the misuse of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) tones….”  As we’ve noted before on numerous occasions, the federal government is very touchy about the use of an EAS alerting tone when there isn’t a test or actual emergency.

There are principally two reasons for this.  First, as the FCC noted (again) in today’s Public Notice, quoting Travis LeBlanc, Chief of the Enforcement Bureau, “[t]he public counts on EAS tones to alert them to real emergencies….  Misuse of the emergency alert system jeopardizes the nation’s public safety, falsely alarms the public, and undermines confidence in the emergency alert system.”

Second, the greatest advantage and disadvantage of the EAS system is that the tone contains digital data that automatically triggers EAS alerts by other stations monitoring the originating station.  This creates a highly efficient daisy chain that can distribute emergency information rapidly without the need for human intervention.

Unfortunately, that creates certain problems, one of which is that there is no human to intercede when an EAS warning of a zombie apocalypse occurs and there are no actual brain-eating creatures in the area (don’t laugh, this has actually happened already).  It is the electronic equivalent of Winston Churchill’s statement that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

Compounding the harm is that while the originating station knows that the alert is false, and can so inform public safety personnel and the public itself when contacted about it, stations further down the automated distribution chain know only that they received and redistributed an EAS alert.  They have no knowledge of the facts surrounding the alert itself, potentially leading to a longer period of public panic before the EAS system locates its pants.

For reasons that are hard to discern, other than perhaps that the public has become more aware of EAS (resulting in more attention from advertisers and programmers seeking to leverage that familiarity), there has been a significant uptick in false EAS alerts in the past five years.  The result has been a growing number of FCC fines in amounts that previously only appeared in indecency cases.  Today’s Public Notice indicates that the FCC has “taken five enforcement actions totaling nearly $2.5 million for misuse of EAS tones by broadcasters and cable networks” in the past six months.

In today’s case (the Order for which has now been released), the FCC stated that “WSIX-FM, in Nashville, Tennessee, aired a false emergency alert during the broadcast of the nationally-syndicated The Bobby Bones Show.”  Delving into the details, the FCC noted that:

While commenting on an EAS test that aired during the 2014 World Series, Bobby Bones, the show’s host, broadcast an EAS tone from a recording of an earlier nationwide EAS test.  This false emergency alert was sent to more than 70 affiliated stations airing “The Bobby Bones Show” and resulted in some of these stations retransmitting the tones, setting off a multi-state cascade of false EAS alerts on radios and televisions in multiple states.

The FCC indicated that the station has formally admitted to a violation of the FCC’s EAS rules, and has agreed to (1) pay a $1,000,000 civil penalty, (2) implement a three-year compliance plan, and (3) “remove or delete all simulated or actual EAS tones from the company’s audio production libraries.”

While the size of the financial penalty is certainly noteworthy, the real first in this particular proceeding is the FCC’s effort to eradicate copies of EAS tones before they can be used by future production staffs.  Given the easy access to numerous recordings of EAS tones on the Internet, the FCC might be a bit optimistic that deleting the tone from a station’s production library will prevent a recurrence.  However, it is perhaps an acknowledgement that most false EAS tone violations are the result of employees unaware of the FCC’s prohibition rather than a producer bent on violating the rule.  It is also an acknowledgement that even a multi-year compliance program may not solve the problem if an EAS tone is lurking in the station library, seductively tempting and teasing that ambitious new staffer who just got a great idea for a funny radio bit….

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I wrote in March of last year that the FCC had proposed fines of $1,120,000 against Viacom, $530,000 against NBCUniversal, and $280,000 against ESPN for airing ads for the movie Olympus Has Fallen that promoted the movie with an EAS alert tone. Seven Viacom cable networks aired the spot a total of 108 times, seven NBCUniversal cable networks aired it a total of 38 times, and ESPN aired it a total of 13 times on three cable networks.

According to the FCC, NBC elected to pay its $530,000 fine shortly thereafter and call it a day, but Viacom and ESPN challenged their respective fines, arguing that the fines should be rescinded or reduced because:

  • as programmers, Viacom and ESPN lacked adequate notice that Section 11.45 of the FCC’s Rules (the prohibition on false EAS tones) and Section 325 of the Communications Act (the prohibition on false distress signals) applied to them;
  • the prohibition on false EAS tones does not apply to intermediary program distributors, as opposed to broadcast stations and cable systems that transmit directly to the public;
  • the use of the EAS tone in the ad was not deceptive as it was clear from the context that it was not an actual EAS alert; and
  • Viacom and ESPN did not knowingly violate the prohibition on transmitting false EAS tones.

In an Order released earlier today, the FCC rejected these arguments, noting that Section 325 of the Communications Act and Section 11.45 of the FCC’s Rules are not new, and that they apply to all “persons” who transmit false EAS tones, not just to broadcasters and cable/satellite system operators. The FCC found that transmission of the network content to cable and satellite systems for distribution to subscribers constituted “transmission” of false EAS tones sufficient to trigger a violation of the rule. In reaching this conclusion, the FCC noted that both Viacom and ESPN had reviewed the ad before it was aired and had the contractual right to reject an ad that didn’t comply with law, but had failed to do so. The FCC also concluded that it was irrelevant whether the use of the EAS tone was deceptive, as the law prohibits any use of the tone except in an actual emergency or test of the system.

In line with many prior FCC enforcement decisions, the FCC found the violations to be “willful” on the grounds that it did not matter whether the parties transmitting the ads knew they were violating a law, only that they intended to air the ads, which neither party disputed. The FCC summed up its position by noting that it “has consistently held that ignorance or mistake of law are not exculpating or mitigating factors when assessing a forfeiture.”

While Viacom and ESPN also challenged the sheer size of the fines, the FCC noted that the base fine for false EAS tone violations is $8,000, and that in assessing the appropriate fines here, it took into account “(1) the number of networks over which the transmissions occurred; (2) the number of repetitions (i.e., the number of individual transmissions); (3) the duration of the violation (i.e., the number of days over which the violation occurred); (4) the audience reach of the transmissions (e.g., nationwide, regional, or local); and (5) the extent of the public safety impact (e.g., whether an EAS activation was triggered).” Because there were “multiple violations over multiple days on multiple networks, with the number of transmissions doubled on some networks due to the separate East Coast and West Coast programming feeds,” the FCC concluded the size of the fines was appropriate.

In describing more precisely its reasoning for the outsize fines, the FCC’s Order stated:

As the rule clearly applies to each transmission, each separate transmission represents a separate violation and Viacom cites no authority to the contrary. Moreover, the vast audience reach of each Company’s programming greatly increased the extent and gravity of the violations. Given the public safety implications raised by the transmissions, and for the reasons set forth in the [Notice of Apparent Liability], we find that the instant violations, due to their egregiousness, warrant the upwardly adjusted forfeiture amounts detailed by the Commission.

Finally, to buttress its argument for such large fines, the FCC pulled out its “ability to pay” card, noting the multi-billion dollar revenues of the companies involved and stating that “entities with substantial revenues, such as the Companies, may expect the imposition of forfeitures well above the base amounts in order to deter improper behavior.”

While today’s Order is not surprising in light of the FCC’s increasingly tough treatment of false EAS tone violations since 2010, it is not all bad news for the media community. To the extent that one of more of the Viacom, ESPN or NBCUniversal networks that transmitted the ads is likely carried by nearly every cable system in the U.S., the FCC could have elected to commence enforcement actions and issue fines against each and every system that failed to delete the offending content before transmitting the network programming to subscribers. Pursuing such fines would be expensive for all affected cable and satellite systems, but particularly devastating for smaller cable systems.

While it is always possible that the FCC could still commence such proceedings, it is notable that the FCC specifically rejected Viacom’s argument that it was unfair for the FCC to fine the networks while not fining the ad agency that created the ad or the cable and satellite systems that actually delivered the ad to subscribers. It therefore appears that, at least for now, the FCC is content to apply pressure where it thinks it will do the most good in terms of avoiding future violations. Should the FCC decide to broaden its enforcement efforts in the future however, we’ll be hearing a lot more about my last post on this subject–ensuring you are contractually indemnified by advertisers for any illegal content in the ads they send you to air.