Nov. 9 Test of Emergency Alert System is "Only a Test"

The FCC has sent a letter to broadcasters and cable operators asking them to make an extra effort to communicate to the deaf, hard of hearing, intellectually disabled or with limited English proficiency, that the Nov. 9 national test of the Emergency Alert System is, as the saying goes, "only a test."

One of the limitations of the 50-year-old system, says the FCC, is that in some cases, particularly over cable systems, there could be an onscreen emergency alert logo and accompanying audio that: "this is only a test," but nothing onscreen saying it is a test.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association earlier this month asked FEMA and the FCC to delay the date of the test. In a lettter to FEMA copied to the FCC, NCTA President Michael Powell pointed out that the FCC had moved the implementation date of FEMA's next-generation Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) from Sept. 30, to June. That standard would have allowed cable operators to add text  to the current government-approved on-screen text for the test that many operators can't modify and which says "This is an Emergency Action Notification," but not that it is a test.

Powell said that while some operators were putting in software patches that would allow them to add text, not all would be able to do so.

The FCC did not move the test, but Thursday (Nov. 3) it announced it had shortened the test from 3 minutes to only 30 seconds. That makes it is more in line with the familiar local tests -- that annoying three-note tone -- that have become a familiar part of the broadcast landscape.

The FCC and FEMA have already reached out to target populations, as have cable operators and broadcasters "conscientiously," the FCC points out.

But just in case, and to ensure that everybody knows it is only a test, the FCC asked that its partners in the test press home the points that it is only a test, that it will sound very much like the local tests they are used to, that it will be in all states and territories, that the screen may not say it is a test on every channel, and that regular programming will resume when the test is over.

An FCC official was checking at press time on why a notification that it was a test was not made part of the government-approved on-screen graphic that was being passed through.

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.