'Amber' Abduction Alert Likely for EAS - Radio World

'Amber' Abduction Alert Likely for EAS

WASHINGTON With the FCC expected to add an Emergency Alert System event code for abducted children later this year, law enforcement and children’s advocates are hoping more broadcasters will sign on to so-called Amber Plans.
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WASHINGTON With the FCC expected to add an Emergency Alert System event code for abducted children later this year, law enforcement and children’s advocates are hoping more broadcasters will sign on to so-called Amber Plans.
Sidebar 1: Are EDIS and RBDS Amber Options?LOS ANGELES At least one EAS expert believes there is a better means available to disseminate abducted-children information quickly and maybe more efficiently than EAS.

"I think there are more suitable vehicles in some areas of the country, which could be built easily in other areas, to do what the Center for Missing and Exploited Children want to do with the Amber Plan," said Richard Rudman, chairman of the National Advisory Committee and the Los Angeles County local emergency committee. "One of those is EDIS."

California’s Emergency Digital Information Service is used by the state’s emergency managers to alert and inform the news media and public with regards to emergencies, from earthquake disasters to power blackouts.

Rudman said EDIS is a combination Web site, news wire and 24-hour broadcast service.

"We have had success with it in California. EDIS allows a local emergency manager to use existing information networks like the Internet, pagers, and e-mail to reach the public via broadcasters," Rudman said.

"Broadcasters can use filtering software, which can preselect messages of interest that they want to carry."

EDIS was developed in 1990 as a means to give emergency managers a simple, comprehensive way to relay detailed emergency information to the public. During the 1994 Northridge (Los Angeles) earthquake response, EDIS carried more than 2,000 news releases and media advisories, according to the EDIS Web site (www.edis.oes.ca.gov).

EDIS can be used to trigger EAS alerts, but it can also be used to follow through with the detailed information people need after an initial alarm, Rudman said.

The EDIS Web site states, "EDIS is designed to be disaster-resistant. A sophisticated satellite distribution network constantly updates ‘mirror’ EDIS servers in selected newsrooms and network facilities around the state. Even when public networks are clogged after a disaster, EDIS information will be available statewide."

"It really is a government-to-media wire service," Rudman said.

Steve Terry, station manager and CE for WYPL(FM) in Memphis, Tenn., said the Radio Broadcast Data System presents many opportunities for transmitting missing-child information quickly.

One of the main benefits of RBDS is the ability to transmit full-text messages, which is one of Terry’s complaints about EAS.

"In Memphis, the Amber Alert calls for local police to initiate the alert. Right now they have to fax the information to (WYPL), the LP1 station. What happens if we don’t see the fax?" he said.

Eventually, Terry would like to see the Memphis Police Department equipped with a RBDS encoder to enable it to move information in a timelier manner.

According to a report from the National Radio Systems Committee, RBDS allows stations to use a subcarrier to transmit emergency alerts without interrupting the main audio channel. RBDS alerts those with the appropriate receivers who have their warning features enabled. Some pagers can also receive RBDS messages.

The report said RBDS was considered as a possible replacement for EBS in the early 1990s when the FCC examined technologies as a replacement to EBS.

The Tennessee State EAS plan includes the capability of using RBDS to distribute EAS messages.
Because of a girl named Amber, a growing number of radio stations are airing EAS messages, hoping to help find abducted children while their trail is still fresh.

Named after Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old Arlington, Texas, girl who was abducted and killed in 1996, the Amber Plan is an emergency plan that uses EAS to help locate abducted children.

EAS is the major element of an Amber Plan and is seen as law enforcement’s primary tool to disseminate information quickly to stations and a particular listening area.

Even with an event code all its own, the continued success of the Amber Plan will depend upon the participation level of broadcasters, who are not required to carry local and state EAS messages, said Richard Rudman, chairman of the EAS National Advisory Committee and the Los Angeles County local emergency committee. The only messages broadcasters are required to carry are national EAS events and tests.

"A new Missing-Child Statement event code means broadcasters can differentiate an Amber alert from a toxic spill. This means they can decide specifically if they want to participate in Amber alerts by entering that code into their EAS box, or leaving it out," said Gary Timm, broadcast chair of the Wisconsin EAS committee and a member of the EAS National Advisory Committee. "Participation in the plan will be strictly voluntary."

The plans originated in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and versions have been adopted in other major metropolitan areas, including Cincinnati, Memphis, Tenn., Charlotte, N.C., and in Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas. Michigan planed to launch a statewide Amber Plan in late June.

Plans are in development to implement Amber in Washington and Phoenix. A total of 22 plans are in effect nationally.

NAB’s Education Foundation planned to honor Dallas/Ft. Worth area stations and law enforcement agencies with a Service to America Samaritan Award on June 11. The NABEF gives such awards each year to pay tribute to an individual or organization involved in broadcasting that exemplifies the industry’s commitment to use the airwaves effectively and responsibly to promote the public interest.

Credited by supporters and law-enforcement agencies with 16 child-abduction recoveries, the alerts are currently sent as a Civil Emergency Message over EAS.

Supporters have urged the FCC to assign a particular event code to help broadcasters identify the alert more easily. Event codes are the three-letter codes EAS uses to identify an event or emergency causing the EAS activation.

The FCC is considering proposed changes to the commission’s Part 11 EAS Rules (RW, April 25). The Notice of Proposed Rule Making shows the FCC is recommending the addition of a Missing-Child Statement to EAS.

Comments for EB Docket # 01-66 were due in early June with reply comments due July 11. EAS observers said they hoped the commission would issue a Report and Order by the end of the year.

Proponents of the plan include The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, the national Fraternal Order of Police and numerous lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Perhaps more important, it appears that many in the broadcast industry have embraced the idea.

"The whole Amber Plan concept has spread quickly the last several years. Certain communities have really adopted the idea and have had success with it," said Joann Donnellan, media director for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The NCMEC in its comments to the FCC is recommending that Missing-Child Statement be changed to Abducted-Child Statement because, Donnellan said, the Amber Plan is not for all missing-children cases, but for abductions.

"The advisory should only be used for the most serious child-abduction cases. It must be witnessed by someone and a child’s life must be in jeopardy. It’s not for runaways or parental disagreements. We don’t want to overuse the system," she said.

Some broadcast EAS experts are concerned about the Amber Plan’s inclusion in EAS. Some felt an EAS missing child alert would help to dilute the effectiveness of EAS and lead to overuse.

"When we first heard of this, many of us in the EAS community were opposed to it. We thought, ‘That is not a proper use of EAS,’" said Timm.

"I think the main operative for Amber to work in a local area is a good written plan, to avoid overuse or misuse."
Sidebar 2: Stations to Pay For Box UpgradesBoth broadcasters and the FCC are concerned about driving up the cost of EAS encoders/decoders if the digital header codes used in the transmission of EAS messages are modified or if new codes are added.

The FCC wrote in its rulemaking notification, "We are particularly interested in ascertaining costs the broadcast stations and cable systems may incur with additional codes. What will it cost to upgrade or modify existing EAS equipment to receive the revised codes?"

Richard Rudman, chairman of the National Advisory Committee and the Los Angeles County local emergency committee, said broadcasters will have to modify existing EAS equipment.

"It depends on what the box is capable of. It’s a memory issue. It will most likely be software-related, but may be firmware in some cases."

Several EAS equipment manufacturers said they believe existing EAS units can be modified with minimum expense to broadcasters.

"We are hesitant to put a price on the changes until we see the complete list of codes the FCC adds. The number of codes will drive the price for the upgrades," said Dave Halperin, vice president for HollyAnne Corp.

"The price to do so will be moderate, substantially less than replacing the unit. A fraction of that," Halperin said.

A HollyAnne HU-961 EAS encoder/decoder lists for $1,495.

"We expect the rules changes, as they are written now, to be of minimal cost to broadcasters, probably under $100" to modify existing equipment, said Darryl Parker, vice president, TFT Inc.

"It is not a question of having to replace the whole box."

The TFT EAS911R4 EAS encoder/decoder lists for $2,195.

Harold Price, project manager for the Sage ENDEC EAS encoder/decoder, said the FCC’s proposed changes to EAS are "fairly cosmetic" as written.

"The price to broadcasters all depends on the complexity of the changes the FCC decides upon."

Price said the new EAS originator codes will require firmware, but no hardware changes for Sage ENDEC units.

TFT, HollyAnne and Sage officials said they filed comments with the FCC predicting the extra costs broadcasters may have to shoulder.

Jim Gorman, owner of Gorman-Redlich, ballparked the incremental cost to implement changes to a relatively new unit to between $50 to $300.

The FCC will allow time for a phase-in period for broadcasters to make the necessary equipment changes, Rudman said.

"With the additional codes and other proposed changes in EAS, manufacturers will also need time for testing."

– Randy J. Stine
Timm believes a system of "checks and balances" will be needed to demonstrate careful oversight and monitoring of the plan. "I think most of the EAS community will go along with the plan," he said.

Steve Terry, station manager and chief engineer for WYPL(FM) in Memphis, Tenn., the area’s LP1 station, said EAS is an adequate means to distribute Amber Alerts.

"My only complaint with EAS is that a station or civil authority cannot send a full-text message. I think in the case of an abducted-child message you need as much exact detail as possible. It would be nice not to have to worry about having an announcer transcribe a long message. There could be even better ways for broadcasters to handle missing-child alerts," Terry said.

Memphis’ Amber Plan covers all of Shelby County and was established in 1999. Since that time, there has yet to be an Amber activation in the county, Terry said.

"I want to protect the integrity of EAS, so overuse is one of my concerns," said Rudman. "However, I’ll support an EAS missing-child advisory, but I still have some worry as to whether EAS was intended for that purpose."

Donnellan thinks it was.

"The FCC has said EAS is for getting life-saving messages out to the community. Child-abduction cases can be life-threatening situations, so it fits the criteria stipulated by the FCC," she said.

EAS can enable stations to deliver information to a community quickly, the main point supporters of the plans make. Police and child-abduction experts agree that action in the first few hours after an abduction is key to a successful recovery.

"The direct correlation between recovery and how quickly the information is spread is undeniable," Gilbert Gallegos, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Even so, Gallegos said EAS should be used in only the most threatening child-abduction cases.

"If you have a witnessed child-snatching, then EAS should go beyond warning of tornadoes and storms. Anyone who is a parent knows that if their child were snatched, they would consider it an emergency situation," he said.

The NCMEC estimates there were nearly 750,000 missing children reported by the FBI National Crime Information Center in 2000. Donnellan said runaways and parental abductions are the two leading causes of reports of missing children.

Spurred by the success of the Amber Plan in Texas, support on Capitol Hill has steadily grown. Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Texas, said he, along with 25 members of the House, have sent a letter to the FCC supporting an abducted child statement for EAS.

"A missing-child message is a superb use of EAS. It’s a perfect example of how broadcasters and electronic media can serve their communities," Lampson said. Lampson chairs the Missing and Exploited Children’s caucus in the House.

While based on a similar premise, Amber Plans can vary in design and by name depending on location. For instance, in the Dallas-Fort Worth plan, the EAS alert is issued by WBAP(AM) and KSCS(FM) in Arlington, the area’s LP1 stations. In Oklahoma, the EAS messages are initiated by the state’s Department of Public Safety. It is not the goal of supporters to standardize how the plan works.

"I think that is best left up to individual states or communities," said J.D. Freeman, Clear Channel Communications/Phoenix market manager, and one of the original Amber Plan developers as station manager at KDMX(FM) in Dallas.

Freeman said he is working on an Amber Plan for the Phoenix area but will design a plan only after getting feedback from local police and broadcasters.

Frank Lucia, the recently retired special EAS advisor for the Technical and Public Safety Division of the FCC Enforcement Bureau, said the success of Amber Plans depends on how the plan is "localized" to a particular community, and how law enforcement helps to foster the system.

"I think it can work well either locally or statewide. Law enforcement’s participation will be key. They are becoming more familiar with the program. And from what I’ve been hearing, I think broadcasters are buying into the idea too," Lucia said.

In Dallas-Fort Worth, an Amber Alert is set into action once WBAP(AM), Arlington, receives and confirms a fax from law enforcement detailing a child abduction, said Clay Steely, director of engineering for WBAP, the originating EAS station. (For a detailed look at the Dallas-Fort Worth Amber Plan, visit the station’s Web site at www.wbap.com.)

"After the two-tone attention signal, we have a customized sounder for the Amber Alert and then a pre-scripted open stating this is an Amber Alert Activation," Steely said. "What follows is a detailed description of the vehicle and information about the child."

Steely said more than 30 radio stations monitor WBAP and KSCS across 17 North Texas counties. The receiving stations have the option of either re-transmitting the audio, or transcribing the message and doing their own broadcast, he said.

"I’d say even though the majority of stations manually forward messages, because of the EAS unit’s automatic storage, they will actually carry the original audio from our stations. That helps to keep things consistent," Steely said. Most stations will repeat the Amber statement every 15 minutes for the first two hours, he said.

Tyler Cox, station manager, KMEO(FM) in Dallas, is chairman of the Amber Advisory Council. Cox is also president of the Association of Radio Managers (ARMS) in Dallas, the group responsible for going to law enforcement with the idea for an Amber Plan in 1996.

"I cannot think of a better use of EAS. This is the best public service idea I’ve ever been around," Cox said. "We get to make a real difference in our communities by helping save the life of a child."

Cox said the Amber Advisory Council meets every two months to review previous system activations.

"We want feedback from as many people as we can get. The group is made up of broadcasters and police, so it’s a chance to come together and see the difference we are making," he said.

The ARMS board has been heavily involved in the national rollout of the Amber Plan, and has been fielding calls from broadcasters interested in setting up Amber Plans in their own communities, Cox said.

"They ask how it works and whether it means giving over control of their airwaves to police," Cox said. "I think some broadcasters are a little intimidated by EAS anyway."

Oklahoma’s state Amber Plan has been credited with one successful recovery since its inception in January 2000. Arkansas and Florida also have a statewide Amber strategy.

"When you think about it, this is the type of thing that’s ideal for radio. We have thousands of eyes and ears in their cars listening to our stations at all hours," said Carl Smith, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters.

Smith said broadcasters in the state have been "very willing and very receptive" to air Amber messages as needed.

"We have always been careful to stress to our members that it is the goal of the state and the Department of Public Safety to keep EAS interference at a minimum. The abduction of a child must meet very strict criteria to warrant an alert," Smith said. Even with those safeguards, one false alarm was issued last year, he said.

At least one Oklahoma emergency manager believes EAS "is overkill for a missing child in a rural county" in Oklahoma. "If we want to succeed at this on a statewide basis, proper training for civil authorities and broadcasters will be critical," said Lloyd Colston, emergency management director for Mayes County, in northeastern Oklahoma.

Colston said people also have to consider the far-reaching effect of EAS. He cited the case of an Amber alert for Comanche County, which is "almost 600 miles away" from Mayes County.

"When an Amber alert goes up from that far away, our local station here wonders why they are receiving a Civil Emergency Message," Colston said.

As the FCC considers assigning a new event code for missing children this summer, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children will launch its own version of the Amber Plan: America’s Missing Child Broadcast Emergency Response. The nationwide initiative will assist communities interested in establishing their own plans.

"We will provide information kits and video tapes for law enforcement and broadcasters to use as guidelines in setting up their own Amber Plan," Donnellan said.

"We hope stations will carry the abducted-child statements," Donnellan said. "We think EAS is the most credible and reliable vehicle for getting information out. We think this is just another way to realize the potential of EAS."

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