Bill Robertson. “LPFM stations … stand to play a valuable role in exposing more people in more places to critical emergency alerts.” The author is vice president of business development for Digital Alert Systems.
The world of the next-generation Emergency Alert System continues to be governed by three undeniable axioms: Number one, EAS is not going away; number two, regulations and requirements for EAS will continue to change; and number three, broadcasters must comply.
With the addition of Common Alerting Protocol capabilities and requirements, this continuous change furthers the impression that all things EAS are in a constant state of flux. In essence, the dust never truly settles. Even now, the FCC is likely looking at additional rulemaking on national EAS, having issued a broad request for comments on the past Emergency Action Notification testing.
Because of these continuous fluctuations, broadcasters must ensure that the EAS equipment they have purchased is designed to keep up with changing alerting requirements, and that suppliers they choose have the expertise, stability and commitment necessary to support those solutions over time.
Ideally, broadcasters invest in EAS equipment as a platform that can be adapted to meet changes in EAS requirements, such as possible modifications on handling the EAN code, the possible use of the National Periodic Test code, and even changes to the Federal Information Processing Standard code and locations, as well as the continuous changes and improvements of FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert Warning System.
There are many changes in the works! Inevitably, one or more of these things will influence the functionality needed in EAS equipment and the way the encoder/decoder must respond to the messages it receives, whether from a federal, state or local emergency management organization.
Within this continually evolving EAS environment (see image), one of the most notable occurrences of late has been the rise of new low-power FM stations. The recently concluded round of FCC filings has opened the door for more of these stations, and their emergence represents some of the most significant industry growth in quite some time. This is important, not only because it offers smaller groups — often churches and other organizations reaching out to a local listening audience — an opportunity to gain a voice on the airwaves.
Current EAS/CAP receive/send ecosphere
With respect to EAS, the growing number of LPFM stations is meaningful because along with the acquisition of a slice of the broadcast spectrum, completion of their transmitter installations and the launch of their broadcasts comes the responsibility to provide EAS messages to their communities.
In short, the importance of LPFM stations to EAS is that these new broadcast operations service areas that may not enjoy particularly strong signals from other broadcasters. They stand to play a valuable role in exposing more people in more places to critical emergency alerts.
The majority of new LPFM stations are being built from scratch, and the current rules dictate that they employ an EAS solution minimally capable of decoding EAS/CAP emergency messages so they may receive alerts properly and forward messages appropriately.
So, LPFM stations clearly must participate in EAS, which requires having CAP-enabled EAS equipment and Internet connectivity to monitor FEMA’s IPAWS. However, LPFM stations have a bit of an economic advantage in that they have the option to use a CAP/EAS decoder-only solution, which can be less expensive than a conventional CAP/EAS encoder/decoder. All of this means that LPFM stations should carefully evaluate their EAS equipment and connectivity requirements and options.
As the three irrefutable laws of EAS govern all U.S. broadcasters, LPFM stations are not immune to the impact of technical and regulatory advances, whether they present new opportunities or new challenges. Therefore, it is equally important for these new broadcasting players to make smart equipment decisions. Even a decoder-only system should be equipped not only to address all current requirements, but also to handle future requirements with easy-to-upgrade software. The system also must support a range of interfaces and communication standards.
With the adoption of CAP as an open standard for sending emergency information — the underlying basis of FEMA’s IPAWS program — the messages that stations receive via the familiar and well-established radio relay EAS system may be augmented by CAP messages, which may include supplemental text, photos, videos or audio. In fact, now that CAP is in play, emergency managers at the state level are rediscovering EAS/CAP as a great way to better communicate to the public. Several states are adding CAP origination tools as they update their emergency response plans.
Yet this new CAP and related IP-based communication technology has stirred another sort of dust storm as now any CAP-enabled device can conceivably receive alerts from “anywhere.” The likely increase in the number of “boundary” conditions — stations that are licensed in one state or county yet operate across county or state lines, capable of receiving alerts for their entire operating area — will expand.
In the past, stations were more geographically bound by terrain and distance from the EAS monitoring sources, but now CAP’s Internet-based communications effectively eliminate these boundaries. The resulting boundary confusion requires more detailed work among the bordering states, along with their respective emergency managers, state broadcast chairs and State Emergency Communications Committee coordinators. Together, they will need to create plans that address scenarios such as when an alert from one state should be communicated by a station that happens to be located along the edge of the bordering state.
So, radio’s future continues to look bright. New players are joining the fold, demonstrating the many virtues of radio while also strengthening emergency communications within their communities. Equipped with flexible EAS equipment, these radio broadcasters will join the ranks of stations that efficiently and effectively provide critical services to the listening public. Welcome aboard.
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