Editorial: Future Imperfect

The Second Report and Order on a next-generation Emergency Alert System finally was published in the Federal Register in November, starting countdown to its final acceptance.
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The Second Report and Order on a next-generation Emergency Alert System finally was published in the Federal Register in November, starting countdown to its final acceptance.

The latest action from the FCC is a mixed bag of new requirements in an effort to modernize a system that dates back to the Cold War and the Truman presidency.

It is hard to argue against harnessing the power of broadcasting to speak to the general population in a time of emergency. Radio broadcasters are able to deliver signals to virtually all of the population, and our facilities generally are designed to operate when other systems have broken down or become overloaded.

Indeed, broadcasters repeatedly have shown their ability to respond reliably and responsibly in times of emergency and have often been the only information lifeline available in disasters such as hurricanes, whether or not EAS has been activated.

Yet we feel a sense of dread whenever a mandatory change is proposed, since part of the costs of these new requirements is likely to fall on the broadcasters.

On the plus side, we are pleased that officials recognize that the use of a broadcast relay system to convey emergency information is outdated and unreliable.

The Report and Order encourages use of alternative systems of message delivery and requires adoption of the Common Alerting Protocol, which provides the ability to convey a greater range of information than the EAS messaging protocol and offers the promise of using one messaging system to distribute information to all types of media, not just traditional broadcasters.

Broadcasters will be required, within 180 days of development of emergency standards by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to install CAP-enabled decoders. The date of publication of the new standards is not yet defined.

Importantly, this new technology should allow the reduction or even elimination of over-the-air emergency test messaging, which serves no useful purpose in a system that no longer relies on information relayed from station to station.

However, what some people view as a benefit of the plan is also an apparent weak point: its dependence on state governments to develop new EAS plans to capitalize on the new technology. Currently, state emergency plans are the only means to distribute emergency information from government agencies to the broadcaster.

If history is any guide, not all states will rise to the challenge equally; some may not “get around” to developing a new plan for some time. While some have well-developed systems to distribute emergency alerts, these states are not in the majority. There is no guarantee that, even after FEMA issues its standards, essential state distribution networks will come into existence within the requisite 180 days.

No federal agency can force a state government to commit resources to an emergency plan. But to be successful, FEMA and the FCC must work together and provide extensive guidance and assistance to state governments in implementing this crucial link in the alert system.

This much is clear: EAS is no longer “just a broadcaster thing” but is evolving into a unified public warning system. Broadcasters need to stay involved and make our voice clear to government officials. As one broadcast advocate puts it, let’s keep the pressure on the FCC and FEMA to be inclusive in their work, and let’s help broadcasters understand that something good is in the works.

The outlines of the system are beginning to be drawn. The future EAS is being built right now. We urge broadcasters to be involved — through SBE, NAB and state broadcast associations — as emergency planners work toward building a system that eliminates unnecessary burdens to the broadcaster while providing its essential public service.

— RW

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