When is a federal agency going to stand up and take responsibility to fund a national emergency alert system?
That was one of the central questions broadcasters asked at this week’s Federal Communications Commission “summit meeting” on next-gen EAS here in Washington.
Right now, the FCC, FEMA and NOAA implement EAS at the federal level; they’re wrestling with parts of emergency alerting; and I could sense the frustration in the room from broadcasters as they discussed the state of EAS today.
EAS “is ignored, criticized and has failed in some circumstances because no federal agency takes responsibility for funding it,” said Ann Arnold of the Texas Association of Broadcasters.
She told the story of a range fire that burned thousands of acres in a small town in Texas.
To warn residents, emergency management personnel told Texas Rangers to drive around yelling, “There’s a fire coming.” She told of two elderly women who died because they were watching soap operas on TV and didn’t hear the warning. Arnold said she also asked the head of emergency preparedness in the area why he didn’t use EAS and have a crawl displayed on the local TV station, and he replied by asking her what EAS was.
She said some people in positions of authority still need to be educated in even the basics of EAS. She called for government funding to train those who originate alerts, including civil emergency preparedness personnel as well as broadcasters, so they know how to get the message out.
Consultant Dale Gehman agreed on the need for commitment — “from somewhere” — to training and to maintaining the system. He also said that out of 78 radio, TV and cable facilities he inspected for EAS compliance, 26% were operating in manual mode even though those facilities were unattended.
Engineer Mark Manuelian of CBS station WBZ(AM) in Boston, who chairs the Massachusetts state emergency communications committee, agreed that federal funding is vital. Some participants pointed to success of Amber alerts to show that EAS can work; but he disagreed, saying that with Amber, just one alert needs to be programmed into an encoder/decoder, not the several codes that EAS requires. He said the complexity of the EAS code input system, in addition to increasing work load at stations, deters some engineers from programming the box at all, thus keeping those stations from taking part in the daisy chain.
An emergency manager in Oklahoma said that in times of crisis, it’s hard to remember which stations in his area participates in EAS and which do not. Many emergency managers work elsewhere full-time and devote maybe 20 hours a week to emergency preparedness duties, this audience member said.
A lot of questions came out of the meeting, to which regulators had no immediate answers. Moderator Tom Beers of the FCC’s Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau said that while he wasn’t speaking officially for the commission, “All of these issues are before us.” The FCC will need to develop new rules to ensure uniform implementation of EAS with the common alerting protocol.
The discussion reinforced the notion the FCC put forward when it approved moving EAS into a next-gen warning system — that EAS is not going away. The question is, will serious money be devoted to improving it and will participation in all aspects become mandatory?