It’s Showtime for the New EAS
     

The overdue revamped EAS system unofficially kicks off a new era in coming months.

Your masked rebel of radio renewal has railed against EAS for years as a relic of the cold war. Except for tornado alley, few areas of the country have benefited from meaningful EAS activation. Instead, the public has become numb to the incessant testing of digital duck farts.

iStockphoto/Chen Fu Soh

Right after 9/11, we challenged EAS leaders to step up and find ways to make the system a valuable resource when Mother Nature and civil emergencies threaten public safety. In 2004, the effort to fix EAS officially was launched, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Homeland Security, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Alliance of State Broadcasting Associations, Society of Broadcast Engineers and the FCC all getting together to craft the massive overhaul.

National Weather Service monitoring has since become required in most state EAS plans along with the valuable Amber Alerts. Common Alerting Protocol and the Internet now have been introduced into the scheme. Fast-forward seven years, and we appear to have what should be a significantly improved EAS.

The original Sept. 30 deadline for all broadcast and cable outlets to have purchased and installed the new CAP-enabled EAS equipment was extended at the last minute to June 30, 2012. Most stations have deployed the new gear and were ready to go in September, but it’s welcome relief for those that haven’t. All stations also are prepping for the first-ever nationwide EAN test on Nov. 9; this will test the effectiveness of the Federal Primary Entry Point system, although it will not involve CAP.

NOT QUITE READY

FEMA and the FCC undoubtedly realized the deadline extension was necessary since so many pieces of the new EAS puzzle were not in place. FCC Part 11 rules covering CAP-related changes for EAS and other details have not yet been finalized. Several of the key EAS hardware makers encountered manufacturing delays and weren’t even shipping their new units until this spring. A lot of smaller stations are not yet compliant.

The vast majority of state and local 911 centers, NWS stations and other origination facilities also do not have CAP-enabled encoding hardware installed. State and local government budgets have been slashed almost everywhere, with no money to buy replacement encoders or CAP servers.

Some form of state governor “must-carry” provision will be part of the new rules, with the details at the state level still under construction. Those are sure to foster even more confusion and dysfunction until each state works out the wrinkles.

It’s a good thing the Sept. 30 deadline was postponed. The new system simply wasn’t ready. FCC enforcement of the new equipment rule just didn’t make sense had it not been extended.

LOTS OF TESTING

Attention is now focused on the upcoming EAN activation on Nov. 9. A nationwide EAN is when the president is handed the biggest microphone government can make available to speak to the nation on every media outlet at the exact same time. We understand that President Obama will not be speaking on Nov. 9 but will leave the practice test message delivery to a FEMA official.

A few states like Washington jumped into the EAS upgrade early, deploying the new CAP boxes first at state-supported and other public stations, along with LP-1 and PEP facilities. As with most government mandates, the law of unintended consequences has precipitated a few issues and unanswered questions.

According to reports from a number of markets, stations have endured mistaken and/or out-of-area activations, missing audio messages and the EAS robot voice mispronouncing words and names of towns, to name just a few.

To be fair, any new nationally mandated system like this will need shake-out time to fix the bugs and start working reasonably well.

SCARY TIMES

Since 9/11, our country, indeed the entire world has become a very different place. Not only have threats of terrorism increased, the instances of extreme weather events seem to be occurring more often. Catastrophic hurricanes like Ivan, Charley, Katrina and Irene, the massive California and southwestern wildfires, and the many devastating tornadoes like those in Joplin and Birmingham have been costly and destructive in recent years. And let’s not forget a rare East Coast earthquake this August, which caused substantial disruption in Washington.

These events heightened our collective awareness about the importance of adequate early warning and public safety.

SERVE COMMUNITY WITHOUT EAS

Since weather forecasting went high tech with satellites, Doppler radar and a host of other advanced atmospheric analysis tools, the ability to make accurate predictions about storms of all kinds has gotten very good. Broadcasters have tapped into that information resource directly and have been alerting the public without needing EAS to play middleman.

With the addition of the Internet, cell phones and social networking, additional warning mechanisms are now available that the public is using on a massive scale to stay in close touch with friends and family. Even before any serious weather event looms on the horizon, almost everybody knows it’s coming … except of course in the case of fast-forming tornadoes.

Stations that are heavily engaged in their communities place high importance on broadcasting breaking emergency news and severe weather information. Long ago most of them established reliable local sources to receive that information directly from government agencies without relying on EAS or a NOAA weather radio.

Certainly the stations that still maintain a good news department or have a sister TV station with staff meteorologists do this well. They can and often do switch directly to a local government agency or spokesman who has been tracking an impending event and put them on the air within a news bulletin without relying on an EAS alert message to convey the relevant information. EAS is almost an unnecessary annoyance for these stations. It could disappear tomorrow and the vast majority of those living in their service areas would still get their emergency news and alerts just fine.

WHO’S PAYING ATTENTION

The problem we have in this business, however, is that since ownership consolidation and the economic downturn, a large majority of radio stations rely on automation for significant portions of their broadcast schedule with no live operators on duty. Without EAS auto-forwarding the serious alerts, listeners to those stations could remain uninformed of an impending event.

Many radio listeners “get their news” from music stations; yet many of those stations run automated voice-tracked hours and don’t maintain a news department or partnership with an all-news station or TV outlet.

Radio stations are licensed as stewards of a public resource and regulated by the government to serve the convenience and necessity of the public trust. Reporting and conveying vital information about serious weather threats and other emergencies to safeguard the public is perhaps the most fundamental tenet of that trust. Stations that short-change their mandate are simply failing to fulfill their obligations as licensees.

It could be argued that before automation and fewer live operators became commonplace, broadcasters were a lot more responsible about paying attention. Delivering the news about breaking emergencies and incoming severe weather to their service areas was a priority.

It seems only the “big stations” do this reliably anymore. Too many others are content to let a pre-programmed PC run their stations with a hard drive full of tunes or syndicated shows via satellite.

This is where EAS actually “comes to the rescue.”

NEW HARDWARE SETUPS

Like every other chief engineer responsible for a cluster of stations, I’ve been working diligently to get up to speed with my new EAS CAP boxes and see how the new scheme functions in my area. There have been a number of snafus, but as more folks on both sides get better acclimated to the changes, EAS operations will get smoother over time. Let’s make sure all the new folks coming in get fully trained.

Operationally, dealing with the new full-featured EAS boxes is delightfully easier than their predecessors. The Web GUI interface with Ethernet and LAN connectivity is a godsend. Reviewing which events you want to filter and forward to air with an appropriate amount of delay time for live operators to control execution must be done carefully. Installing and programming the new CAP boxes gives all of us a good opportunity to rethink how EAS is handled at our stations.

A few colleagues at smaller stations have asked me about the CAP “add-on” boxes. Those would allow continued use of the legacy encoders and supposedly save money. From what I have seen and read, choosing that option will likely be short-sighted. EAS is not going away. If anything, it’s liable to gain more importance as the future becomes more unpredictable.

Strict EAS compliance is a religion for most broadcast groups, because the FCC wields the threat of stiff fines for violations. Sometimes EAS enforcement seems to have become a convenient income generator for the Portals to help defray operating expenses. Will impending government spending cuts ramp up the pressure on this “funding” opportunity even more?

Q&A ON THE NEW RULES

FEMA has held a series of ongoing EAS Q&A webinars that offer a wealth of additional information about how the new system and specifically the Nov. 9 EAN are supposed to operate. Their website features a “national dialogue” on the new EAS with tips and suggestions on best operating practices for hardware installation, event filtering and many other topics. Check it out at nationaldialogue-emergencyalertsystem.ideascale.com

There are a few remaining holdover rules that do nothing to enhance the effectiveness of EAS. The most obvious one is the RWT that must be transmitted by all participating stations once a week, even if no other station is assigned to monitor that station.

Since the RMT effectively tests a station’s EAS equipment and the ability for operators or auto-forwarding to place alerts on the air every month, RWTs are simply not needed. Almost every other item in the rules requiring periodic compliance checks specifies a monthly or quarterly schedule.

All that RWTs really accomplish is making listeners “tune out” and become more immune to real alerts. A few of my colleagues also suggest canning the RWT in the recent public comments filed in the Docket 04-296 proceeding. Hopefully the FCC will give us relief here in the final rulemaking.

KUDOS

As a government-mandated requirement, EAS has struggled in many areas to become truly effective and relevant as a primary warning system to protect the public. But with the initiatives to update an aging system originally designed for Soviet ICBM attacks, I’ve got to tip my hat to the efforts by all the groups and agencies that took on this challenge. Even with the rules not yet finalized, getting bureaucrats with different agendas to agree and then act on anything nowadays is remarkable.

It’s now up to the folks in charge of originating the real alerts to make timely and proper decisions and then for all broadcast and cable outlets to get them on the air. The new EAS has a better chance than ever before to deliver on its promise.

Guy Wire is the pseudonym for a veteran radio broadcast engineer.


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