Broadcasters say they are set to implement the government’s latest Emergency Alert System requirements. However, before that can happen, the FCC needs to finish its analysis of last year’s nationwide test that turned up glitches. And the entire process is suffering from a lack of a requirement that state and local agencies participate.
Broadcasters say they are ready to implement the next-generation Emergency Alert System mandated by the FCC some five year ago.
But when the government will switch to the new system — or even fully test is — is still uncertain.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has the chief responsibility for the system, is waiting on an FCC analysis of a troubled test of the legacy EAS system last fall.
Everybody wants to conduct another national test, said FEMA’s Antwane Johnson. “But until we can get all the data in from the EAS participants, broadcasters and others, and be able to evaluate that, I don’t think it would be wise to do another test.”
And an FCC official, speaking on background, could not say when the agency’s analysis would be completed. “The FCC continues to analyze data from the test,” the official said. “No decision has been made on the release of information about it.”
The federal government has had some sort of official emergency warning system in place since the 1950s. The early CONELRAD system was replaced by the Emergency Broadcast System in 1963 and it, in turn, was replaced by today’s Emergency Alert System or EAS in 1997.
Such systems are available not only to the president, but also to federal agencies like the National Weather Service and to state and municipal governments.
Following the traumas of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, President Bush in 2006 ordered a reevaluation and, if necessary, an upgrade of the EAS. “It is the policy of the United States to have an effective, reliable, integrated, flexible and comprehensive system to alert and warn the American people in situations of war, terrorist attack, natural disaster, or other hazards to public safety and well-being ….,” the executive order said.
That got FEMA and the FCC moving and they eventually came up with the Common Alert Protocol (CAP), an Internet-based system for sending alerts to broadcasters and other EAS participants.
According to its proponents, the CAP alerts are more robust and versatile than the current messaging system, allowing both audio and video. What’s more, they can reach computers, smartphones and other wireless devices.
With CAP, EAS will be fully integrated with FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert Warning System (IPAWS). The National Weather Service would deliver weather alerts through IPAWS to EAS participants.
The CAP alerts are also designed so that they can be distributed via the current “daisy-chain” EAS system, which relies on a hierarchy of broadcast stations to relay the alerts. Government officials see the legacy system providing a level of redundancy in the case of power outages or disruption of the Internet.
As every broadcast viewer or listener knows, the EAS system is tested locally on a regular basis, but it had never been tested nationally until Nov. 9, 2011. It did not go as smoothly as hoped.
Some stations did not receive any alerts. And there were complaints that other stations received distorted audio or no audio.
Here’s how FEMA described the problem: “A technical malfunction … affected the audio quality for many downstream stations and, in some cases, resulted in duplicated messages or muted the audio test message. Due to the technical malfunction, an echo effect in the message was heard and preceded by several EAS tones.”
After two extensions, broadcasters, cable and satellite operators and other last-mile EAS participants have until June 30 to install the CAP gear.
For most broadcasters, the deadline appears to be of little concern. “Right now everything seems to be fine,” says Kelly Williams, NAB’s point man on EAS issues. “Nobody has raised any concerns.”
FEMA has been sending messages each week that broadcasters can use to check out their gear, Williams added. “We’ve been telling our members, ‘Make sure you’re getting those tests. If you are not, something is wrong. So, find out what’s wrong.'”
Williams also stresses the importance of maintaining the legacy system. It’s “going to be around; everybody has made that clear. It is not going away.”
Broadcasters confirm Williams’ rosy assessment of their CAP readiness.
“We’re fully CAP compliant and ready to go. I think we’re in good shape,” says Belo’s Reed Wilson, executive director of technology.
Brett Jenkins, VP and chief technology officer at LIN Media, says he feels “pretty comfortable” about the state of LIN’s compliance. “I would say probably 80% of our stations have confirmed that they have used the equipment and have run a test using the test messages generated by FEMA,” he says. “If the FCC or FEMA wants to do another national test, we’d be willing and able to do it either using the legacy system or the CAP system.”
Dave Siegler, VP of technical operations for Cox Media Group, says the 15 TV stations he oversees are in “really good shape,” adding that installation of the new gear has not been “too painful. As with any technology change, it’s taken a little bit of time for the orders to be placed and the equipment shipped in and installed. But we had time to adjust and get that done.”
At Meredith Local Media, all 13 TV stations are fully tested and equipped with new EAS gear,’’ says Larry Oaks, VP of technology. “I think the stations have done their leg work and are prepared, Making the switch was not “terribly expensive,’’ he notes, estimating that the new equipment and software totaled less than $5,000 per station.
While broadcasters have done their part to embrace the new EAS system, the CAP technology has yet to be deployed by many local municipalities and state governments.
“It’s what we call the EAS gap,” says Suzanne Goucher, president-CEO of the Maine Association of Broadcasters. “The federal government requires EAS participants to be able to receive and retransmit a presidential message. But there is no mandate that a state or local public safety agency has to send an alert never mind a CAP-enabled alert,’’ she says.
“Maine is on board and realizes that this is a valuable system and has the CAP-enabled equipment. But some state and local officials don’t want to ever send an EAS alert,” Goucher adds.
As LIN Media’s Jenkins points out, the absence of CAP-compliant messages on the state and local levels makes it harder for broadcasters to coordinate emergency information.
Despite the urgency generated by the June 30 deadline, Jenkins thinks broadcasters should expect a long transition.
“Nobody is using CAP right now,” he says. “We get FEMA’s test messages, but we’re not doing anything with them. It is sort of business as usual for us other than the fact that we now have these boxes that can receive messages.
“Right now we’re just putting the infrastructure in place and it could be years before it is actually used or tested.”