FCC Seeks Comment on EAS National Test Issues

Two years after the first nationwide test, the FCC identifies, seeks answers to, problems that cropped up.

Cast your minds back to November 9, 2011. That’s when, with much hullaballoo, the Commission and FEMA conducted the first ever nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS), the point of which was to determine whether the system would operate as designed if it were activated in a real emergency. While the test went off reasonably smoothly, some glitches apparently did surface and now, two years down the road, the FCC is looking to fix them.

In a Public Notice the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau has asked for comments on a variety of technical issues that cropped up during the 2011 test.

A number of the issues relate to the header codes inserted in EAS transmission. (We told you they were technical issues.) The contents of EAS messages are specified in Section 11.31 of the Commission’s rules. But not all the codes worked as planned.

For example, the message transmitted by the FCC and FEMA to start the nationwide test apparently included a “Time of Release” code specifying a 2:03 p.m. start time, even though the Commission had gone to great lengths to publicize the start time as 2:00 p.m. Further complicating matters is the fact that the rules require that EAS messages be transmitted “immediately” upon receipt. Many folks receiving the message ran the test at the publicized 2:00 p.m. time, while others ran it at the 2:03 p.m. time in the header code. Obviously, this needs to get worked out. The Commission is looking for comments on how best to address the problem. Indeed, is it practical – given the daisy-chain nature of the nationwide EAS operation – to expect that a nationwide emergency message can be transmitted simultaneously everywhere?

Another problem: the location code.

The rules require that such a code be included in the EAS message to indicate the location of the emergency. Oops, the rules contain no code for nationwide Emergency Action Notifications (EAN), triggered by the President and intended to reach EVERYONE in the U.S. But that’s just the kind of message that the nationwide exercise was intended to test. (For purposes of the 2011 test, the Commission used the location code for Washington, D.C., which may or may not have affected how receiving gear dealt with the message.) This is another thing that needs to get worked out – for example, should EANs be given their own particular location code, or should EANs be excused from the location code requirement?

And yet another problem: the event code. The rules require that the EAS message specify the nature of the emergency involved, but they include no code for testing a nationwide EAN. So when the Commission planned the 2011 test, it opted to transmit an actual EAN, rather than a routine National Periodic Test (or NPT) test message. This in turn meant that the Commission had to undertake considerable publicity beforehand to make sure that the public would not mistake the test for the real thing. Now the Commission is considering adjusting the rules in light of its experience, and it’s soliciting suggestions.

Moving beyond header code questions to issues more obvious to folks in the audience, the Commission raises the question of visual text crawls. Should crawls be standardized – size, type font, scroll speed, language – and if so, in what way?

Another formatting question: the length of the nationwide test. Apparently, most EAS equipment “times out” if an EAS message lasts for more than two minutes and then releases the station to go back to regular programming. A real EAN, however, may be of any length – the 2011 test was originally set for three minutes, although it was ultimately decided that the national test should run 30 seconds. Some stations, however, had EAS equipment which could not rebroadcast an EAS shorter than 75 seconds. Obviously, if the Commission plans to run any more nationwide tests, it will need to resolve these issues.

While many of these questions affect equipment manufacturers, they also affect everyone who already had EAS equipment already installed, particularly if any rule changes will require adjustments to that equipment. The Commission is seeking input from all concerned on how to solve the technical difficulties that turned up during the 2011 nationwide test. The emphasis is on identifying maximally practical solutions, taking into account the complications of reprogramming widely spread EAS equipment and the associated expense in advancing workable solutions.

Comments are due by October 23, 2013, and reply comments by November 7.

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