Abbott: We Need More Information


A lack of information is one of the consistent concerns expressed by industry leaders commenting to Radio World about the implications of the Common Alerting Protocol and pending changes in EAS.

Among people most affected are those involved in state-level planning. Radio World U.S. Editor in Chief Paul McLane asked Adrienne Abbott how the changes in alerting are playing out right now in Nevada.

In this interview, she says that federal officials appear to be leaving the education process “up to EAS chairs and a few broadcasters.” She worries that the process to date has made it difficult to build “the kind of seamless, integrated public warning system envisioned by the authors of the Second Report and Order on EAS.” And she lists numerous questions raised by the concept of governor’s activations, especially in cases of cross-border coverage.

RW: Describe your job/role in EAS.

Abbott: I am the FCC-appointed chair of the State Emergency Communications Committee for the state of Nevada. I work with other members of the SECC to make sure the Emergency Alert System functions as designed.

We are all volunteers and receive no reimbursement for our work. However, we do have the support of the Nevada Broadcasters Association, which has provided the funding for some of our expenses such as the printing of the state and local plans and custom binders for the plans.

Nevada is a large state and there are no broadcast signals that cover the entire state. The FCC divided Nevada into three operational areas, and we wrote plans for each area. In addition, we wrote several versions of each area’s plan, one for the Local Primary stations, one for the participating stations, one for the National Weather Service and one for emergency officials. We have training programs that correspond to each plan.

Radio World’s EAS CAP Page
This is one in a series of Q&As with industry leaders regarding the implications of CAP and changes in EAS. For past interviews and other resources, see the Radio World EAS CAP page, or type “EAS CAP” into the search field at radioworld.com.
When I asked the Broadcasters Association in 1994 if I could be the state chair for the new EAS, the station managers said that they would support me as long as I made clear what they had to do. Over the years, that support has never wavered and is as strong now as it was back then.

One of things that I do as part of my commitment to the station managers is to send out reports every week on EAS activities in each operational area. That means the chief operators at each station know what tests and activations have been sent and whether there have been any problems in the past week. This helps them maintain accurate logs and avoids a lot of confusion.

The weekly newsletters also give me a way to keep the engineers, master control operators, program directors and others informed of what’s going on with EAS, including the developments with CAP.

RW: What’s going on in your operational areas as a result of the recent federal standards announcements and implementation clock?
Abbott: Right now, some stations are buying the new EAS equipment that’s on the market, some stations have had the new EAS equipment for several years and other stations are putting off their purchases until more is known about the products and which ones have passed the FEMA conformance lab tests.

Some stations are on very tight budgets and they aren’t buying anything right now and are holding off until we all know more about the new equipment.

Adrienne Abbott. ‘There isn’t enough information available to both broadcasters and emergency officials about what’s going on with the new EAS and why the changes are happening.’
RW: You told me that as a state chair, you have more questions than answers yourself. What specific questions are you looking for answers to, and what questions are you hearing from others in Nevada EAS?
Abbott: I feel that there isn’t enough information available to both broadcasters and emergency officials about what’s going on with the new EAS and why the changes are happening.

Many of the people who are making decisions about the new equipment don’t understand how CAP works and why it’s better than what we have now. Both the FCC and FEMA appear to be leaving this education process up to the EAS chairs and a few broadcasters.

There’s a certain “because we said so” attitude from the FCC that’s being felt by broadcasters who are randomly buying whatever equipment appeals to them or their corporate engineers. That’s making it difficult to build the kind of seamless, integrated public warning system envisioned by the authors of the Second Report and Order on EAS.

Our broadcasters want to know more about the role of the Internet in the new EAS and what kind of security there is for the system. Also, there are a number of stations in this state who are so isolated that they don’t receive any other broadcast signals and if they have Internet service, it is unreliable and often fails in bad weather conditions. These broadcasters want to know if they still have to buy the new equipment and if so, why.

Other broadcasters want to know why they have to buy the new equipment when the state and local emergency officials aren’t going to be CAP-compliant and will continue to use EAS the same way they always have by issuing messages through the Local Primary station. And my state and local emergency officials don’t like CAP because it will send their warning messages to a server at FEMA before sending them to the broadcasters and the public. They aren’t concerned so much with possible delays that might occur in the transmission to the FEMA Aggregator as they are concerned that they are losing control of their message in the process. In addition, there are a few emergency officials who don’t understand why they need CAP when they have HazCollect [the All-Hazards Emergency Message Collection System, run by the National Weather Service to centralize collection and distribution of Non-Weather Emergency Messages].

There is also concern here because Nevada has just one Primary Entry Point station, which covers only the northwestern part of the state. There is no PEP station and no coverage for the Las Vegas area; and while the plans for a new PEP station have fallen through, no one is telling the station that volunteered for the role or the SECC or the Nevada Broadcasters Association anything about what’s happened and why. As a result, there is concern in southern Nevada about how broadcasters will participate in the upcoming national EAS tests.

RW: What is “governor’s must carry” and why is it a matter of discussion?
Abbott: All local EAS activations are voluntary. Radio and TV stations and cable operators are not required to broadcast local activations.

The so-called “governor’s activation” was proposed in the Second Report and Order as a way that state and local officials could issue a warning that would come with the same kind of mandate for rebroadcast as a national activation and would have to be carried by all stations and cable operators in the operational area. This proposal was a response to some of the past incidents where stations refused to carry warnings that local officials felt were vital and to give those officials a reason to “buy-in” to the new system.

Fortunately for Nevada, the standards for a governor’s activation don’t limit its use to a statewide emergency because our state is so big and so geographically varied we just don’t get disasters that cover the entire state or require a warning for the entire state. Our disasters are regional and our biggest disasters historically have been wildland fires, floods and flash floods, and earthquakes. Generally, these have been confined to areas that also conform to our FCC-designating EAS operating areas, which were based on the NOAA Weather Radio coverage areas.

Operational areas for which the state of Nevada SECC is responsible reach into eastern California and northern Arizona. ‘We also have coverage from stations in Utah and Idaho reaching into Nevada and stations here that reach Utah and Idaho,’ Abbott said.
Time for a geography lesson: Unfortunately, broadcast signals, even those from NOAA, are no respecters of geo-political boundaries. As you can see on the map, the operational areas reach into eastern California and extreme northern Arizona. We also have coverage from stations in Utah and Idaho reaching into Nevada and stations here that reach Utah and Idaho.

Disasters in western Nevada often extend into eastern California and problems in southern Nevada reach into northern Arizona; and it goes like that all the way around the map. So in order for a mandatory governor’s activation for something like an evacuation order for a wildland fire to get to the areas where the people who are affected would receive it, the activation would have to go through the Local Primary station in Reno as well as the participating stations in northwestern Nevada.

The problem then becomes: Which governor is going to issue the warning and which stations are going to carry it? Do the Nevada stations in the western Nevada/eastern California operational area have to carry a governor’s activation issued by the California governor?

What about stations that are licensed for communities in California yet have their main studio in Nevada? Are governor’s activations issued by the California governor mandatory for them and them only? What about a similar situation involving stations in the Eastern Sierra that are part of the western Nevada/eastern California op area? Are governor’s activations from Nevada mandatory for them?

I believe the answer would be for the SECC to set up MOUs [memoranda of understanding] for cross-border coverage; but because there’s been no guidance from FEMA, what authority does the SECC have to set up these MOUs and what authority does the SECC have to carry them out? What if one emergency official likes the proposal and the other does not?

And then there’s the question that many broadcast engineers have raised: Will there be a new “originator code” for the governor’s activation that will provide a means for the new equipment to automatically interrupt programming and broadcast the alert? How will that be incorporated into the current Part 11 rules and the state plans? How long will it take to implement that code and will it mean the new equipment will have to be upgraded at an additional cost to broadcasters?

What provisions are there in CAP systems that allow for a governor’s activation issued in California to reach the appropriate stations in Nevada? Would the originator code work for more than one state? Would the message from whatever system California is using be able to reach across the Internet to Nevada stations intact and in a format that provides for a proper activation here? Will CAP be able to resolve the time differences between states like Nevada and Utah? And will there be some way to test these regional activations on a regular basis?

Finally, one of the biggest and as yet unsolved issues revolves around time.

Idaho and Utah are on Mountain Time and Arizona does not observe Pacific Daylight Time; so six months out of the year, an AMBER Alert issued from Southern Nevada authorities comes into the stations in Bull Head City as expired because the message is already an hour old; but a kidnapping suspect leaving Las Vegas can be in Bull Head City within that hour. How do we handle governor’s activations from states like Arizona, Utah and Idaho that are in different time zones?

These are just a few of the questions that have developed around the governor’s activation; and they will have to be resolved or the proposal will never be implemented. At this point, it seems like that resolution won’t come in time for the CAP deadline but will probably be worked out in a rewrite of the Part 11 rules and possibly require an update of CAP equipment to function properly.

RW: When can stations expect to know the answers to their own questions, such as what they’ll need to do when they receive CAP messages, what sources to monitor, how messages will be logged and so forth?
Abbott: We’re supposed to know the answers to these questions now because the clock is ticking; but we still don’t even have a list from FEMA of the manufacturers whose equipment has been found compliant in their conformance lab. At this point, stations that have already purchased CAP EAS equipment are gambling with their budgets that the manufacturer will be able to provide them a simple download if the FEMA conformance tests indicate some changes are needed.

We’ve been told that the Local Primary stations will continue in their traditional roles “for the foreseeable future” and that the Internet connection is another monitoring source. The new equipment on the market now provides for computer logging and gives engineers, program directors and chief operators the ability to check the status of their EAS equipment over the Internet. There have been hints the Required Weekly Tests will no longer be required, but again, that change could come with the Part 11 rewrite, rather than with the installation of CAP equipment.

And because there are so many things that haven’t been decided yet, we’re still betting the budget on the manufacturer’s ability to easily make any needed future changes in the equipment we’re buying today.

Nevada is an odds-state, but I don’t know if I want to take those odds downtown.

EAS Irony
Reports from the field regarding confusion over existing EAS procedures are not unusual.
As this issue went to press, Radio World fact-checked the accompanying text with Adrienne Abbott. In her response, she e-mailed: “Ironically, we had a non-weather EAS activation today. A bad case of ‘backhoe fade’ took out all phone service in parts of at least three Nevada counties and one California county. This was complicated by confusion resulting from officials who don’t use EAS often enough to know what to do, had no communication with each other and no knowledge of the cause of the outage, no estimate on when it would be repaired and what areas were affected.

“At 6 p.m. I was still dealing with e-mails from broadcasters who don’t understand why they didn’t have the text of the audio message during the activation, why their EAS equipment said ‘Civil Emergency,’ why the audio in the first message was so garbled it might as well have been in Uzbek (state emergency officials asked me to re-issue the activation), why there were no e-mails sent out, why the websites of the counties involved had no information, apparently forgetting that when the phones go out, the Internet goes with them, etc.

“Nevada is a case of ‘EAS by hand,’ but we still make it work because our broadcasters care.”
In addition, some manufacturers are offering an inexpensive “converter box” that buttons onto legacy EAS equipment and translates a CAP message into something acceptable and understandable to the older unit. My concern is that the stations who buy them because they are less expensive, will find out when Part 11 is finally re-written that the converter box isn’t enough to make them CAP-compliant. All they’ve done is postpone an expensive purchase and now they’ve lost the little money they put into the converter box.

RW: Much has been made about federal decisions from FEMA and the FCC. But although EAS is designed as a national system, in practice it historically has been used only on the state and local levels. How will state plans have to change in Nevada and elsewhere to accommodate what has happened in recent weeks?
Abbott: Even FEMA tells you in their training programs that “all emergencies are local.” Very few events start out as full-scale national disasters, so local warnings are important; and most of the initial warnings about a major disaster are made when the event begins by local first responders. By the time the event becomes a “major disaster,” incident commanders have brought in experienced public information officers who get critical information to the media and the public and we are way past the time where EAS activations are being made. I don’t expect that to change.

Yes, Nevada’s EAS plans will have to be rewritten. But we don’t have enough information yet to do that. We don’t know whether state officials will chose to be involved with CAP; we have a new governor taking office in January, and some policies and personnel will change. We don’t know if those changes will affect what happens with EAS. And we don’t know what changes the FCC will make to Part 11 to guide us through the rewrite.

We can begin the rewrite process now, but in this economy we have to question whether it’s worth the cost of printing, distributing and training for new plans when we will make more changes once Part 11 is rewritten.

RW: What else do radio engineers and managers need to know right now?
Abbott: At this point I am recommending that our engineers and managers not buy new EAS equipment unless they have something that needs replacing or they are overruled by their corporate offices. We don’t know what equipment has passed FEMA’s conformance tests, we don’t know what our state is going to do; and when these questions are answered, there’s the possibility that we can get everyone to agree on a specific product, and then the Nevada Broadcasters Association can seek a group discount from the manufacturer of that product.

It’s too soon and too little is known for our stations to be able to make a decision right now.

In addition to being Nevada chair for the SECC, Adrienne Abbott is field engineer for the Nevada Broadcasters Association; in that capacity she conducts the Alternative Broadcast Inspection Program (ABIP) inspections for stations in Nevada and eastern California. She also coordinates live productions for association stations, such as the recent candidate debates for U.S. Senate and governor, and the governor’s State of the State addresses.

Comment on this or any article to radioworld@nbmedia.com.




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