WASHINGTON The FCC could begin discussions this summer on recommendations from the Media Security and Reliability Council on ways to ensure the delivery of emergency information via public warning systems in this country. Yet warning experts expect the process to be “measured and deliberate” and that any immediate overhaul of the Emergency Alert System is unlikely.
The federal advisory committee has received initial recommendations from working groups on public communications and infrastructure, urging better coordination among media and local emergency jurisdictions and recommending that a single federal entity take responsibility for public warning. A final version of the guidelines is expected in December.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell established the MSRC following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, to ensure the reliability and security of broadcast and multichannel video programming during times of crisis. The group is patterned after a similar group for the wired and unwired telephone industries.
Common Alert Protocol
The working groups’ list of 26 recommended “best practices” also called on the government to create a Media Common Alert Protocol to deliver emergency messages via digital networks and asks the FCC to urge local and state governments to update their emergency procedures.
“We think the recommendations are very good and we are looking forward to beginning discussions within the FCC, with our federal partners and others from the industry,” said Jim Dailey, director of the FCC’s new Office of Homeland Security. The office is part of the commission’s Enforcement Bureau, and now has responsibility for broadcast EAS enforcement.
Warning experts say they expect the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for issuing the five-color terror alert system, to step forward and take control of public warning systems. Department secretary Tom Ridge attended MSRC’s biannual meeting in May.
Dailey does not expect the FCC to give up enforcement of the national level requirements of EAS.
The FCC, Federal Emergency Management Agency and National Weather Service currently oversee the alert system.
Meanwhile, broadcasters and MSRC officials said this is at least a starting point to enhance the public image of an EAS system that has been ridiculed by some broadcasters and lawmakers as ineffective.
“It seems that while the FCC has done an excellent job making sure broadcasters maintained their EAS equipment and their commitment, there has been no one single federal entity to make sure that federal, state and local governments draw up adequate plans for utilizing all of the equipment broadcasters have in place,” said Ann Arnold, executive director of the Texas Association of Broadcasters and chair of MSRC’s Government to Media subcommittee.
“Making it clear what federal agency is in charge will allow them to advocate on the system’s behalf. I think the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is a logical choice to carry the EAS torch.”
Broadcasters are prepared, she said, to engage with local and state EAS planning committees to develop emergency warning plans that actually work.
“The broadcasters are offering the most timely, easiest form of communicating with the public during times of emergency anywhere. They have invested money and have had this system in place since 1996. The missing link has been someone at the government level responsible for the system and advocating on its behalf,” Arnold said.
Tribune Broadcasting Vice President Shaun Sheehan said it’s time the federal government “gets its arms around” the public warning issue.
No big overhaul seen
“This will not be a complete overhaul of EAS. These are simple, forward-looking recommendations that can be easily implemented. Now it’s up to the FCC to craft the rules and regulations and petition for the changes,” said Sheehan, who serves as MSRC’s liaison coordinator.
“The media has been treated as an outsider when states and cities have been putting together their EAS plans. It’s time to bring us into the tent.”
Sheehan said radio is one of the most crucial components in delivering emergency information to the public. “It could theoretically come down to having portable radios as the only means of communication,” he said.
Several MSRC officials pointed to a “disconnect” between broadcasters and local public disaster officials as a cause for concern.
“We have to look at fixing EAS from the bottom up, instead of from the top down. That starts with making sure state plans are updated and revised,” said Tom Fitzpatrick, chair of MSRC’s government to public messaging subcommittee.
“We think the EAS system that is in place can be improved. The infrastructure is there. That’s why this set of recommendations makes no far sweeping changes. We’ll have to include XM and Sirius satellite radio at some point … the Internet and other wireless means, too,” said Fitzpatrick, an executive with Giuliani Partners, a management-consulting firm founded by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Even though MSRC’s initial recommendations do not address incorporating specific new technologies into EAS, Dailey said, “The FCC is certainly interested in any proposals that come along that can enhance EAS. It’s certainly in the country’s best interests to pursue those kinds of things.”
The working groups did recommend that, “Research into development of alternative, redundant and/or supplemental means of communicating emergency information to the public be accelerated.”
Fitzpatrick predicted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would take the public warning lead by the end of 2003. “Leadership is going to be very important to get things done. Secretary Ridge can get it done.”
Along with public warning concerns, several MSRC subcommittees have examined ways to ensure broadcasters prevent loss of service and accelerate recovery during times of crisis.
Backups for the backups
“Redundancy,” said Gary Kline, corporate director of engineering for Cumulus Broadcasting, “is the most important consideration.”
“Restoring signal faster to at least some stations in a market to allow them to get information to the general public in a particular locale was our main focus,” said Kline, a member of the MSRC Restoration subcommittee. “We looked at all different size markets and different regions. Some regions may have more restraints than others.”
Kline said the group assessed ways clusters of stations in a market could restore signal faster. “When we looked at clusters, we asked, ‘Do they have multiple transmission sites or multiple studio sites to allow for a sister station to return to the air?’ That sort of thing. Aux transmission sites are another important consideration.
“It’s important that all media outlets conduct vulnerability assessments and have disaster recovery plans. Cooperative agreements between broadcasters in the same market are another option.”
Kline said the working group surveyed U.S. radio and TV stations to determine their ability to continue operations during a major disaster.
The MSRC changes might necessitate another revision of event codes in the commission’s Part 11 EAS Rules, Dailey said. The FCC most recently revised the EAS event codes in February of 2002.