Alert: FCC Tweaks EAS Alert

The FCC has proposed taking several steps to improve Emergency Alert System warnings including, among other things, requiring broadcasters and cable operators to meet minimum standards of EAS alert accessibility to the disabled, taking a page from closed-captioning requirements. It also signaled another EAS test is coming up soon.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which was approved this week, also establishes a national code for warnings and requires cable operators and broadcasters to file test results electronically.

The FCC sought comment on the proposals, which won't be effective until after a final vote. The commission has set a six-month deadline for compliance following that final vote (actually following publication in the federal register of the voted item).

The changes stem from a November 2011 test of the EAS system that revealed some problems, including accessibility and readability of emergency crawls. The FCC said that the new changes are needed "to facilitate another nationwide EAS test in the near future."

Stakeholders had talked about the cost of the changes, including making audio warnings visible and vice-versa, and had sought flexibility in addressing accessibility concerns, but the FCC said that while it was mindful of those concerns, "all members of the public should be able to receive timely and accurate EAS alerts so that they can take quick action to protect their lives as well as those of family members....[W]e believe it is imperative that the Commission consider the option of establishing minimum accessibility requirements now."

The National Association of Broadcasters, for one, had pushed collaboration rather than technical mandates, particularly for formatting visual crawls.

But the FCC has now proposed setting a crawl speed standard, as it has for closed captions, though it is seeking comment on what that should be. It has also proposed that crawls be displayed continuously throughout the entire duration of EAS activation—to insure "completeness" of the message, also taking a page from the closed-captioning "completeness" requirement that captions run beginning to end. The commission also proposes adopting placement and readability requirements—legibility, font size—from closed captioning.

There had also been audio issues with the November 2011 EAS test, but most of those came from FEMA, which has addressed the issue, the FCC said. But the FCC seeks input in the notice on how it can insure that the audio and visual elements convey the identical information.

The commission is seeking comment on the costs of the proposed changes, including on the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's assertion that implementing a proposed national location code rule will cost cable EAS participants about $1.1 million over the entire cable industry, and whether a broadcaster figure would be comparable.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.