EAS participants now have 180 days to prepare for CAP-based EAS alerts

That muffled noise you might have heard in the distance last week was the starting gun in the race to comply with new Emergency Alert System (EAS) standards announced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). With FEMA’s September 30 announcement of the applicable Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) standards, all EAS participants now have 180 days to prepare themselves to accept CAP-based EAS alerts.

There’s something of a handicap for the racers, though: the FCC still hasn’t amended its own rules to provide for CAP-based emergency messaging.

Our colleague Davina Sashkin saw all this coming last Spring, when she reported on an inquiry issued by the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau (PSHSB). The Commission itself had, back in 2007, announced that all EAS participants would have to get on board the CAP train within 180 days of FEMA’s announcement of the applicable CAP standards. Aware that FEMA was looking to make that announcement as early as third quarter of 2010, last March the PSHSB sought comments on how the FCC’s EAS rules would have to be modified to accommodate new CAP standards. (According to a quick check at ECFS, a relatively small handful of commenters responded to PSHSB’s invite.)

But since then, we have heard nothing from the Commission in the way of a formal proposal for amended rules to address the conversion to a CAP system.

(Still unsure what that CAP thing is? CAP is “an open, interoperable, data interchange format for collecting and distributing all-hazard safety notifications and emergency warnings to multiple information networks, public safety alerting systems, and personal communications devices.”  It’s part of the federal government’s deployment of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), the goal of which is to allow governmental officials (FEMA, the National Weather Service, State Governors, etc.) to get the word out to the public about emergency situations as efficiently and comprehensively as possible through as many communications devices as possible (think radio, TV, cellphone, text, computer, etc.) The CAP system will also enable alerts specifically formatted for people with disabilities and non-English speakers.)

In any event, the PSHSB initiated its informal proceeding in March because it couldn’t start revising its own rules until FEMA set the ball in play by formally adopting CAP technical standards.  

Well, the ball is in play, so be on the look-out for some fast action on the Commission’s end.

FEMA got the ball rolling with its September 30 announcement of the adoption of a new CAP standard. This gives all EAS participants until March 29, 2011, to become prepared to accept CAP-based EAS alerts. FEMA’s September 30 announcement indicates the FEMA has adopted the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) v1.2 Standard (OASIS CAP Standard v1.2). It also alludes to a CAP to EAS Implementation Guide that might shed some light on things.

As CAP is designed to cross all technical boundaries, everyone from broadcasters to cellular phone operators to MVPD providers should be on the lookout for a fast-tracked (in light of the ticking clock) Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM).

Some issues we might expect the NPRM to consider:

  • Whether the FCC should eliminate locally delivered test scripts for EAN (Emergency Action Notification), EAS, and the EAS Handbook
  • Whether national activation with the EOM code should be eliminated
  • Whether to update broadcast EAS rules
  • Who should be responsible for translating alerts into multiple languages
  • Whether a nationwide training program should be instituted for crafting and implementing EAS messages
  • Should the “selective override” issue for cable operators be revisited

And an obvious practical question looming over all this will be whether the 180-day deadline should be extended to give affected players – including, but not limited to, the FCC itself – a bit more time in which to get their act together. It is far from clear, for example, that equipment manufacturers will be able to (a) get their gear modified to conform to whatever new standards the FCC may adopt, and then (b) get the FCC to bless the modified gear, and then (c) get it out in the marketplace before the current deadline, now less than 180 days away. And once that equipment is available in the market, broadcasters, MVPDs, cellphone companies, etc., etc. will all have to buy and install it. Whether that process can be completed before March 29, 2011, is far from clear.