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FCC Extends Waiver for Emergency Alert PSAs

Turns out the FCC will allow the broadcast of a simulated emergency alert signal in a TV spot, just so long as it is coming from FEMA.

The FCC has fined commercial TV operations big time for promos that used the two-tone EAS signal—FCC rules say the signal can only be used in an emergency.

But the FCC has granted the Federal Emergency Management Agency an 18-month extension of its waiver of the rules so it can continue to air PSAs alerting viewers to the fact that there is a Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) tone as well for mobile devices whose carriers offer it. FEMA cited "negative press coverage" and some complaints from confused members of the public for arguing they needed to continue to air the PSAs. The waiver would have expired May 31.

FEMA is airing the alert tone for educational purposes, and the FCC waiver makes clear that the tone has to be used in a non-misleading manner, meaning it does not mislead the viewer into concluding there is a real emergency. "The PSAs play the WEA Attention Signal to familiarize the public with the sounds that they may hear from their mobile devices when they receive a WEA alert," the FCC points out.

Since the system was deployed in April 2012, says the FCC, government agencies have sent several thousand WEA alerts to consumers, including for weather events, evacuations, and AMBER alerts. But FEMA says it has "received feedback from other public safety officials, wireless carriers and the public" that many consumers were startled or annoyed when they heard the signal for the first time.

FEMA pointed out to the FCC that some wireless subs were also having a hard time figuring out how to turn the alerts off, which confusion could discourage use of the alert system.

The waiver only applies to FEMA's PSAs and no other broadcast of the WEA or EAS tones, whose grating, or as FEMA puts it, "loud, attention-grabbing, two-tone audio signals" are virtually identical.

Technically, there is not the same "broad bar" on broadcasting the WEA tone as there is the EAS tone that has gotten broadcasters and cable operators in hot water, but because they sound alike, the FCC said it was possible the PSAs would violate its rules.