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FEMA: Keep Originating Alert Audio Clean

That’s part of draft ‘best practice’ talks underway as the agency prepares stations for the national EAS test.

“We are looking for a more functional and resilient EAS.” To have that requires testing.

A disaster recovery center in Jackson, Tenn., in June. Photo by Ed Edahl/FEMA.

So says Manny Centeno, EAS test program manager for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.

In a webinar Thursday, Centeno said the upcoming national EAS test “is not a pass or fail measure,” nor will it test CAP equipment or procedures.

Rather, the government wants to make sure the existing EAS is ready for future improvements as users plan a migration to the Common Alerting Protocol delivery mechanism.

The nationwide test of a presidential alert is planned for Nov. 9. FEMA, in concert with broadcast and cable associations, local governments and other EAS participants, has begun crafting a set of best practices related to EAS antennas, receivers/tuners and equipment installation and configuration.

Though the advice sounds basic, it’s important that those who originate alerts make sure messages are clear and free of distortion, Centeno said. As a message is transmitted through the EAS system, “The audio will go through several levels and there will be degradation, so we need to make sure it starts clean.”

FEMA notes that EAS message reception at stations is more challenging in rural environments and in locations subject to man-made electric noise sources such as dimmers, overhead power lines, computers and electric motors —including fans, blowers and compressors. It has best-practice suggestions for mitigating these challenges to AM and FM reception.

They include evaluating your signal acquisition needs and selecting a suitable antenna; using an external antenna whenever possible; and using a whip or loop antenna for AM and a directional antenna for FM. Using these antennas, “you’re stacking the odds so you have a better signal coming into your EAS receiver,” Centeno said, and are therefore better able to transmit an audible alert to the next station in the chain and/or to the public.

You can contribute to the discussion about the draft best practices on the “National Dialogue on the EAS” website.

The next FEMA webinar is slated for Aug. 15. At that time, the agency hopes to have draft best practices ready for discussion. A Sept. 1 webinar is slated to cover EAS equipment operation and maintenance.

Also, regarding the upcoming national EAS test: The Washington, D.C., location code will be used for the originating message because there is no location code for the entire country, according to Centeno. In answering a question, he said most EAS encoders/decoders can relay the Emergency Action Notification that will originate out of FEMA without stations needing to re-program the device, adding that more information on the EAN will be forthcoming.

Kelly Williams, senior director of engineering and technology policy for NAB Science & Technology, and Chris Brandt, subject matter expert and head-end technician for a cable company in Alaska, took part in the presentation. They contributed to a discussion of television crawls, noting there is no standard practice for text color or speed across the TV screen as part of an alert.

Kelly said NAB would like to see some flexibility allowed for the background, noting that most stations tend to use white letters in the message crawl and a color background, often with the station’s logo or other branding. “Readability continues to be something everybody needs to address,” he said.

— Leslie Stimson