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FEMA Now More Clear on Its Alert Role

It also plans to give the radio industry a heads up soon on CAP.

In the latest installment of the EAS soap opera — let’s call it “What’s Going On and When Do Stations Needs to Worry About It?” — the Federal Emergency Management Agency now has decided that it does have the legal authority to send along alert messages to cellular phone companies — messages it gets from state and local entities — even during non-emergencies.

FEMA supports a framework developed by the Federal Communications Commission for delivering cellular alerts and will work with the Department of Homeland Security scientists on the needed technology. Development and pilot testing could take some 18 months, FEMA Maj. Gen. Martha Rainville told reporters last Friday.

I wrote here in May that the agency had had some questions about its authority because the system being contemplated by FEMA interfaces with state and local alerting systems and FEMA didn’t want to get in the way of those alerts. The cellular “aggregator/gateway” system would also allow emergency alerts to override and preempt non-emergency cellular traffic.

FEMA says its authority here is clear-cut during emergencies but not so during non-emergency events, though it wasn’t specific except to say it wasn’t sure it had authority over non-government participants during non-emergencies.

It came to this conclusion — that it can act as a grand pooh-bah of all emergency messages — after reviewing its authority in the matter.

Members of the broadcast community have chafed at what they see as a lack of a clear leader among federal agencies in pushing through and coordinating changes to the nation’s alerting system. By taking this action regarding the cell phone issue, FEMA also seems to be stepping up to this role. What’s not clear, however, is if funding for development, testing and implementation of a new EAS system will follow.

The Bush administration sees FEMA as the lead agency in next-gen alerting, because the prez has sole responsibility for determining when the EAS will be activated at the national level.

FEMA said last Friday it will assume an “aggregator/gateway” role in passing on emergency messages from originators to cell phone subscribers, using the system that has yet to be developed. This planned Commercial Mobile Alert System would verify that federal, state and local emergency alerts were sent by “authorized senders,” and then transmit the alerts to commercial mobile service providers, who, in turn, will send the alerts to their cell phone subscribers.

In her press conference, Rainville also said FEMA will announce its position on adopting the CAP-to-EAS protocol within the next 30 to 60 days.

I asked if that’s when the 180-day “shot clock” begins for broadcasters to have new EAS encoders/decoders installed; she said no, this is more a heads up for everyone involved in the process as to what standard FEMA “is aiming for.” So for now, broadcasters remain in the dark about when CAP would be adopted and if so, what version would be used. FEMA is working with NOAA, the NWS, state, local, tribal and territorial emergency managers, nonprofit sector groups, and the FCC to develop CAP profiles that will support various alert and warning systems.

(Rainville had to make her teleconference presentation twice; journalists in attendance couldn’t hear the first roughly 30-minute presentation due to what FEMA called “telephone software issues,” so she had to summarize again — an amusing, or ironic, occurrence, depending on your point of view about FEMA and its logistics capabilities.)