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Feds Plan First Nationwide EAS Test

And would conduct such testing at least annually

Federal officials are planning to do the first nationwide test of the broadcast Emergency Alert System. FCC rules now provide for voluntary testing at the state and the local level, but not nationally. The FCC has issued a Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to change the rules governing the Emergency Alert System to conduct national testing at least once a year.

The FCC additionally proposes requiring more detailed documentation from participating TV, radio and cable operations. The information would be due to the commission within 30 days after the test, and would be made available to the public. The agency is also asking for feedback on the equipment used to retransmit EAS codes, which differ depending on the manufacturer.

The codes take over the broadcast communications system for emergency message distribution. A specific code must then be sent to free up the equipment. A national alert would likely deliver a message from the president, using a specific code sequence, the Emergency Action Notification, or EAN. A limited-area test of the EAN was conducted this month across Alaska. Several anomalies were revealed that engineers are now addressing, but the feds are concerned that the configuration of the alert system may lead to failures.

The national alert system relies on a daisy-chain architecture whereby certain radio stations designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency receive the notification first. Those Primary Entry Point stations are monitored by State Primaries, which then 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 that must monitor two sources for presidential alerts.

The feds believe the daisy chain configuration makes the system vulnerable to “single-point-of-failure problems” where stations beyond that point in chain don’t receive the notification. Such was the case in June 2007, when a national EAS was accidentally triggered during a FEMA test of a new satellite warning system in Illinois.

“It was subsequently discovered that some EAS participant equipment simply did not pass on the alert,” the FCC’s notice said.

An effort to update EAS technology has been underway under the direction of the FCC and FEMA. The so-called “next-generation” EAS would make use of a Common Alerting Protocol standard that would ease data sharing across different distribution systems. There is no timetable for the adoption and implementation of upgraded EAS technology.

The Second Further Notice is Docket No. 04-296. Comments are due 30 days after publication in the Federal Register; and reply comments are due 60 days after.

— Deborah D. McAdams, Television Broadcast