NEW YORK City officials and broadcasters here think an agreement using the Emergency Alert System to allow Mayor Michael Bloomberg to warn of public safety emergencies is exactly what the emergency notification system should be used for.
The city’s local EAS plan, called the New York City Emergency Alert System and launched in October, is an “enhancement and expansion of the national EAS,” according to proponents, one that will be only used to disseminate critical information during times of crisis. It could serve as a model for other major cities to follow, supporters believe.
Four New York City AM stations have been designated Local Primary (LP1) stations 3/4 WABC, WCBS, WFAN and WINS 3/4 and will serve as entry points for emergency messages activated by the mayor. Other stations in the city will then receive the EAS message through the relay process.
Some broadcasters say that if a similar system had been in place during the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, Mayor Rudy Giuliani would have used the local EAS system to address the fears of residents, said Dick Novick, senior vice president of the New York State Broadcasters Association, who helped coordinate the effort to develop a local EAS plan.
“We are confident this is not something that will be misused by city government. Certain criteria will have to be met to warrant a local activation by the mayor,” Novick said.
City authorities and local broadcasters signed a memorandum of understanding; it broadly states that the plan “shall not be deemed as a relinquishment of program control and does not prohibit stations from exercising independent discretion and responsibility in any given situation.”
Novick said the mayor’s staff held a meeting in 2003 with station managers and news directors to begin planning for a local EAS system.
“When we came up with the idea, we wanted to use the existing infrastructure of EAS and the city’s secured trunking radio system,” said Kevin Plumb, director of engineering for ABC Radio in New York. “I think this is what EAS was created for. This is perfect in the event of a duck-and-cover emergency.”
Plumb said the mayor would use a secure cell phone, satellite phone or land line to originate an emergency call to one of two EAS encoder/decoder boxes located in several of the city’s command centers. The mayor will be prompted to supply a series of passwords and codes and then speak to supply the audio message.
“The city’s two-way radio system will be monitored by receivers at all four LP1 stations. The message will be authenticated by the EAS header to make sure everything is legit. We will record and store-forward any comments from the mayor,” Plumb said.
Mark Olkowski, director of engineering for Infinity Broadcasting in New York, said the lack of a New York City EAS plan was evident during 9/11.
A better plan
“Looking back, we could have been better prepared. That event really spurred the whole notion of committing ourselves to being better,” Olkowski said.
Olkowski, who oversees technical operations for three of the four LP1 stations in the city (WCBS, WFAN and WINS), said closed, off-line circuit tests and loop tests between the mayor’s office and the four LP1s began in late summer. Periodic testing will be done to ensure the local system is operating correctly.
“It really is a very simple system right now. It may become more sophisticated down the road, but right now we are piggybacking on what we had already in place for EAS,” Olkowski said.
According to Mayor Bloomberg, the New York City EAS is expected to cost the city around $100,000 yearly to maintain. Plumb said broadcasters would not pay any of the cost for operating the local EAS system. The city is hiring a full-time broadcast engineer to manage and oversee its EAS equipment and operations.
A second component of the mayor’s local emergency plans include construction of six facilities in three boroughs for city leaders to conduct news conferences during emergencies. Fiber optic lines will be installed to transmit audio and video to broadcasters across the city, Plumb said. The mayor’s office has not released a date for the scheduled completion of the second project.
The city’s EAS plan was approved by the State Emergency Communications Committee and has been filed with the FCC. The commission has encouraged local disaster officials to coordinate emergency communication plans with broadcasters and to file those plans, Novick said.
The FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in August to evaluate the need for changes in the national EAS. One component of the NPRM addresses the need to require broadcasters to carry all local and state emergency alerts. Currently, only a presidential emergency message is required to be rebroadcast.