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FCC Orders First National EAS Test

No president has ever triggered an emergency alert, and the system has never been tested intentionally.

WASHINGTON: The Federal Communications Commission today approved an order to conduct the first national test of the Emergency Alert System. The commission voted unanimously to adopt a Third Report and Order that sets forth rules for the test, to be initiated by a presidential alert from Washington to TV, radio, cable and satellite systems across the country. No president has ever triggered an emergency alert, and the system has never been tested intentionally.

The date and time of the test is yet to be determined, but it will not be delayed until after the compliance deadline for implementation of the Common Alerting Protocol. All EAS participants have until Sept. 30, 2011 to implement CAP, an advanced data format intended to standardize alerts from various federal agencies.

“We do not believe it is necessary to delay testing until the period for CAP compliance ends,” the FCC order states. The Federal Emergency Management Agency “anticipates continuing use of legacy EAS into the foreseeable future.”

All TV and radio providers in the EAS chain will be required to participate. They must have the equipment necessary to receive and transmit a live Emergency Action Notification code relaying a presidential message to viewers and listeners. They’ll also have to submit test-related data to the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau within 45 days of the exercise.

A limited-area test of the EAN was conducted a year ago across Alaska. Several anomalies were revealed, including dead equipment and communications failures. The national alert system relies on a daisy-chain architecture whereby the EAN is transmitted to designated radio stations that are monitored by State Primaries, which in turn retransmit the alert to Local Primaries that notify all other broadcast and cable participants. The United States is divided into 550 local EAS areas, each with at least two Local Primaries monitoring two sources for presidential alerts. A single failure within the system can leave hundreds of participants out of the loop.

The order provides a two-month public notification period before any national EAS test. The FCC, along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service will work with TV and radio stations to let the public know what’s up. To that end, a nationwide EAS Public Education and Awareness Campaign with workshops, outreach, and television and radio ads will be launched.

— Deborah D. McAdams, Television Broadcast