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Fallout Over False Alert Continues

The EAS time stamp does not have a year, which seems to be part of the problem

“You don’t mess with EAS.”

So says Tennessee Association of Broadcasters President Whit Adamson, commenting to Radio World about Friday’s false alarm. He said the broadcast association takes its role as an EAS administrator seriously and reiterated the importance of adherence to EAS rules.

“That is the one thing that is really taboo and we have made that clear. You don’t mess with EAS. Lesson learned in this case.”

He was among industry leaders reacting to the incident in which emergency alert audio, played as part of a segment on a nationally syndicated morning show, triggered a presidential Emergency Alert Notification message on some radio and TV stations. It triggered renewed scrutiny of the operational stability of EAS systems and pointed up the fact that the EAS time stamp does not contain a year.

As we’ve reported, the snafu occurred during the airing of the “Bobby Bones Show,” which originates from the studios of WSIX(FM) in Nashville, Tenn., and is syndicated by Premiere Networks, part of iHeartMedia. As part of a bit, the show’s producers aired tones that were of the 2011 national EAS test conducted by FEMA.

The morning show is syndicated on some 100 radio stations; the false alarm propagated among stations in some markets. The alert message viewed on television stated in part, “The station has interrupted its regular programming at the request of the White House to participate in the Emergency Alert System.” FEMA officials were obliged to issue a notice quickly on Friday that no national emergency existed.

It’s not clear where the show’s producers obtained the alerting tones, people familiar with the incident said. A search of YouTube found several videos featuring tones from that date. The sources said the syndicated show and WSIX could face possible fines from the FCC. A spokeswoman for iHeartMedia provided a statement to Radio World: “The tone should not have aired. We are cooperating fully with the authorities and are taking aggressive action to investigate this incident and prevent it from recurring. We deeply regret the error.”

The incident also prompted discussion by members of the alerting community on listservs such as the EAS group maintained by the Society of Broadcast Engineers, over whether or not decoders should have forwarded the presumed but outdated EAN alert and how to handle any similar incident in the future.

Some commenters on the listserv are urging the FCC to remove ambiguity regarding release time of emergency alerts received. The commission in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking this summer clarified that once released, an EAN alert must be transmitted immediately regardless of the time in the JJJHHMM “time of transmission” string of the EAS header. The string refers to the number of days in the year (JJJ), hours (HH) and minutes (MM).

According to people familiar with the transmission, the header string contained a date stamp of Nov. 9, associated with that test three years ago. When received on Oct. 24 of 2014, this caused some EAS boxes to think it was seeing a current alert because EAS messages do not include a year in the time stamp; it is not part of the EAS protocol.

How decoder boxes are configured and how they should act in this circumstance has been the point of some disagreement. Listserv discussion focused on why devices would think this was a current alert; whether some users had configured devices to ignore the date; and what the FCC wants stations to do. Radio World has requested an FCC comment and will report it if available.

Ed Czarnecki of manufacturer Digital Alert Systems wrote on the listserv: “Attempting to infer an expiration time without explicit reference to the JJJHHMM string is a difficult exercise that would involve making assumptions, which can be a dangerous exercise.”

The guidance from FEMA IPAWS Friday asked broadcasters to configure their EAS devices to “not forward” an EAS message with a header that does not match the current date and time.

Harold Price, president of Sage Alerting Systems, wrote on the SBE forum that his company’s Sage Endec viewed the message as “not valid” since the EAN time stamp of Nov. 9 was so far ahead. He suggested that the FCC’s advisory Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council, recommend a set of unambiguous rules to handle similar cases.

According to one industry observer, another topic of discussion is likely to be the FEMA guidance and any potential conflict with FCC rules.

As we reported, one corporate radio engineering executive calls this entire situation “a big mess” and worried that a station, and not the president or his designee, could trigger an apparent EAN alert.

And in a commentary on the website NorthEast Radio Watch, industry observer Scott Fybush suggested that a “clever EAS equipment provider” should be able to “design a box that can stop the audio of EAS data bursts from getting down the audio chain to the transmitter and causing this sort of chaos.” Fybush (who also writes for Radio World but was commenting on his own site), thought that in designing future EAS systems, “it’s probably time to break completely from the entire idea of in-band audio.” Read that here.