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FCC Is Asked to Clarify “Live” and “Immediate” EAS Rules

Sean Donelan also asks commission for more online EAS support and documentation

Here’s an EAS question for you: What do the terms “live” and “immediate” mean when discussing Emergency Action Notifications and National Periodic Tests?

One industry observer would like the Federal Communications Commission to clarify that question.

Sean Donelan, who works in network reliability and infrastructure, sent a detailed letter asking the commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau to clarify or publish its interpretation concerning rules for “live” and “immediate” activations of the EAS.

He provided context for his question. “Reportedly, an FCC staffer made informal comments at a meeting [that] his interpretation of the rules meant they must be re-transmitted as soon as the EAS headers are validated,” Donelan told the FCC. “This informal comment did not take into consideration … the ‘manual’ capability for activating the EAS at a participant’s facility, which has been permitted since the original FCC orderestablishing the EAS in 1994; and appeared to add a requirement to re-transmit NPT messages ‘live.’” But he said this appears to contradict the FCC’s current rules.

Donelan said that as a result of those informal comments, some EAS hardware manufacturers made “extensive software changes” including removing the ability to use the “manual mode” for both EAN and NPT activations from their EAS encoder/decoders. “Further, some EAS participants reportedly made extensive and expensive changes to their systems and associated standards in order to comply with this apparent change to FCC policy for EAS.”

He said this situation may have been confounded by a 2012 orderremoving a requirement that “during a National emergency must carry Presidential Messages ‘live’ at the time of transmission or immediately upon receipt.” He thinks the FCC didn’t actually intend to remove the “live” requirement that uniquely applied to EAN messages, and only EAN messages. “This was probably an inadvertent editing error,” he surmised. “The unique ‘live’ requirement for EAN messages had been part of the EAS rules since 1994, and permeates other standards supporting the EAS … Adding a ‘live’ requirement for non-EAN event codes would have a cascading effect on many other non-EAS systems.”

In 2015, he said, the commission required National Periodic Test (NPT) code be retransmitted “immediately upon receipt.”But he said the FCC’s analysis did not foresee that its change to the NPT would require expensive changes to how EAS equipment processed the test or related standards. “The 2015 rulemaking stated the changes would be ‘reconfigurations of the code filters on their encoder devices.’ The rulemaking did not foresee extensive changes to related standards such as SCTE-18 to support ‘live’ transmission of NPT messages.” Further, he said, the rulemaking explicitly rejected making the NPT fully emulate the EAN. “The FCC noted an NPT which shares similar characteristics of normal event codes would still accommodate FEMA’s desire to perform a national test in the near future, and would dramatically lower cost than adding EAN-like capabilities to NPT. FEMA conducted several regional tests over the last year with EAS participants using software which did not include EAN-like ‘live’ capabilities for the NPT.”

Donelan told the FCC that the last publicly available White House statement of requirements suggests a five-minute reaction time. “Although it stated an automatic capability is desirable, it was not a requirement.” And FEMA, he said, did not express a need for the NPT to be transmitted “live” but did express the desire the NPT be disseminated with “same immediacy as the EAN.”

He asked that the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau interpret the terms “immediate” and “live,” consistent with historical use, and support both automatic and manual operation of EAS equipment. “While the FCC and FEMA may want to encourage the use of automatic mode for EAS equipment, manual mode remains an allowable part of the EAS rules.”

He set out a list of recommendations to go about it; you can read them here (PDF).

Donelan also reminded the FCC that when the Emergency Alert System was new, its Compliance & Information Bureau published information and provided helpful clarifications on its website. “After 1999, when the FCC re-organized its bureaus, the Enforcement Bureau took over responsibility for the EAS. The Enforcement Bureau ceased publishing clarifications about the EAS (and the previous EAS answers/clarifications disappeared).”

He asked that the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau return to the practice, in part to “help avoid misunderstandings from informal hallway comments between meetings.”