Obligation to provide viewers with disabilities ALL crisis-related announcements can affect video providers well outside immediate geographic area of the crisis.

The Commission has issued its annual public notice reminding video distributors everywhere not just in areas prone to particular types of disasters – of their obligation to make all emergency information accessible to people with vision and hearing impairments. This reminder, usually timed to coincide with hurricane and forest fire seasons, underscores the need to be alert to the needs of all audience members when emergency information is being provided. (Since this year’s notice is substantially identical to last year’s, the following recap similarly tracks our post describing last year’s notice.)

As broadcasters, cable/fiber system operators and satellite television services have learned from past experience, there are no exceptions to this requirement, and no excuses will be accepted for less than full compliance – even in areas well away from the zones directly affected by the emergency conditions. And let’s be clear: this requirement is over and above routine closed captioning or video description obligations. Existing, everyday procedures to meet those routine obligations may not be enough during an emergency.

Section 79.2 of the FCC’s rules requires that all video distributors make “emergency information” “accessible” to those with vision or hearing disabilities (the latter by closed captioning or other visual means). “Emergency information” is defined by the Commission as information

about a current emergency, that is intended to further the protection of life, health, safety, and property, i.e. , critical details regarding the emergency and how to respond to the emergency.

Emergencies covered by the rule include such natural disasters as tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and wildfires. The rule also covers man-made disasters such as discharges of toxic gases and industrial explosions.

The Commission has emphasized that this rule allows for no exceptions, even in cases of quickly breaking news about and emergency conditions. Importantly, the rule reaches not only scripted presentations, but ad lib statements made in the course of live news coverage. In 2005, several TV stations learned this the hard way. After reviewing days’ and days’ worth of recordings of the stations’ coverage of wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes, the Commission doled out hefty five-figure fines for what appeared to some to be relatively minor instances on non-compliance. 

Example: One TV station was fined because, during coverage of wildfires, it aired a representative of the American Lung Association who gave the unsurprising advice that viewers should stay indoors, run their air conditioners with a filter, and avoid exercise. The station’s failure to include visual presentation, by captioning or otherwise, of that advice contributed to a $20,000 fine. (You can check out other examples here, here, here, here or here.)

The FCC’s public notice stresses the wide geographical range of the requirement. The obligation to provide emergency information to the sight and hearing disabled applies not only to the immediate geographical area(s) in which the emergency is occurring, but also to areas of the country which might be logical emergency evacuation routes and in which evacuation shelters might be located. Consistent with this concept, “emergency information” includes, for purposes of the rule, announcements about where evacuees from the danger zone may obtain relief assistance.

According to the public notice, some national events can be of local interest and subject to the requirements of Section 79.2, regardless of the seeming lack of any “local” impact. It does not, however, provide any guidance to stations on figuring out when an emergency might fit into this category.

What steps are video providers expected to take?

For audience members who are blind or visually impaired, emergency information that is provided in the video portion of a regularly scheduled newscast or a newscast that interrupts regular programming must be accompanied by an aural description of the video presentation in the main audio portion of the programming. For example, the text of on-screen images or graphics (e.g., a list of available emergency shelters) must be accompanied by a voice-over describing the video action or reading the text of the on-screen material. 

Emergency-related screen crawls that are not part of a regular or unscheduled newscast must be accompanied by an aural tone to alert visually impaired people to tune to another information source, such as the radio. The Commission recommends frequent repetition of that tone, at least as often as the information in the crawl is repeated. 

To reach people who are deaf or hard of hearing, Section 79.2 requires either closed captioning, or other methods of providing the audio portion of the emergency information in a visual presentation. Such alternative presentations may not, however, block the closed captioning, nor may any closed captioning block another form of visual presentation such as a crawl. 

Network affiliate TV stations in the top 25 markets have a significantly greater burden in this area. Those stations are required, by hook or by crook, to arrange for closed captioning services. The Commission cuts such stations a little slack by allowing them time for the captioning personnel to travel to the station, but in the meantime any emergency information being broadcast must be made accessible to the disabled by some method. The method of providing this information can be somewhat crude, such as holding up a whiteboard with handwritten information.

Additionally, depending on affiliation and market, some stations are allowed to use the electronic newsroom technique (ENT). Such stations must insure that their ENT systems caption non-scripted materials; if the systems don’t caption such materials – whether automatically or as a matter of choice by the station – the station must nevertheless make all emergency information disabled-accessible in some manner.  

The bottom line is this: ALL emergency information aired by video distributors without exception. This includes information provided before, during and after the emergency. For example, weather alerts (including watches and warnings) and emergency preparation information about impending storms – including school closing announcements and changed school bus schedules; announcements about circumstances (downed power lines, washed out bridges, etc.) during the storm; and the availability of relief assistance after the storm. It must ALL be made available both visually and aurally.  The substance of even an off-hand remark, if it contains any relevant information, must be conveyed in a way that makes it accessible to the vision and hearing disabled. 

Perhaps most importantly, the Commission emphasizes that it is the responsibility of the local station to make sure that all emergency information is accessible, regardless of whether the station is viewed over the air or on cable or satellite.

And lastly, as has become its custom, the Commission devotes an entire page of the public notice to letting the public know how to file a complaint against video providers who don’t follow the rules. Now would be a good time to confirm that your contact information on file at the FCC is current and accurate: the public notice informs consumers to first contact their video provider directly for a quick resolution of the problem. Since 2010 all video distributors have been required to file their contact information with the FCC so that any audience member experiencing a problem with closed captioning can reach out to you directly. (We reported on that requirement way back when.) Even if you’re confident that the FCC has the correct contact information for your operation, it wouldn’t hurt to check, just to be sure.

(The only substantive addition to this year’s version of the public notice is a footnote alluding to some recently-adopted-but-not-yet-effective requirements. Those requirements – compliance with which will be obligatory as of May 26, 2015 – involve: (a) use of a secondary audio stream to convey televised emergency information aurally, when such information is conveyed visually during programming other than newscasts; (b) specification of certain types of video programming apparatus that must be capable of delivering such emergency information in an accessible manner to the deaf, hard of hearing, blind or visually impaired; and (c) use of an initial aural tone for information imparted over the secondary audio channel, to alert blind or visually impaired audience members to the presence of an emergency situation, allowing them to switch to that audio stream.)