FEMA-organized test to include 22 states, two territories and D.C.

EAS-1Here’s a big CommLawBlog HEADS UP for those of you broadcasting in any of these 25 (count ‘em, 25!) jurisdictions: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, D.C., Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Texas, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Virginia. At 2:20 p.m. (ET) on February 24, 2016, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will be conducting its latest ISSRT in your neighborhood.

What’s an ISSRT? That would be an IPAWS Supported State/Regional Test (IPAWS, of course, standing for Integrated Public Alert and Warning System). The test in this case is (in FEMA-speak) “a distribution of the National Periodic Test (NPT) code, originated by the FEMA IPAWS Lab, geo-targeted to participating states.”  In real-world language, FEMA is going to be testing the use of the NPT header code through the Emergency Alert System – in the 22 states, two territories and one District of Columbia listed above – to make sure that it works, and to give participating broadcasters the opportunity to either (a) confirm that their gear is properly configured to deal with NPT-coded messages or, if it isn’t, (b) fix the problem.

Essentially, stations in the areas in which the test is to be conducted will receive an NPT-coded EAS alert at the prescribed time. Participating stations will then automatically relay the alert and associated audio message to the public and to other stations downstream from them under their respective State EAS Plans. This will be a purely voluntary exercise, and – here’s some good news – it is to be “conducted in a no-fault environment”. That means that the FCC will not be taking any enforcement actions as a result of participation in the test, even if a station’s EAS gear fails to respond correctly to the EAN code. (Note also that this ISSRT will not replace any required weekly tests (RWT) or required monthly tests (RMT).)

What’s this all about? Readers will recall that when, five years ago, the FCC and FEMA conducted the first ever test of the national alerting system, things didn’t go so well. Since then, efforts have been made to address the various problems that cropped up. Just last year, for example, the FCC adopted a number of changes to its EAS rules in light of the lessons learned during the 2011 test.

Among the problems that popped up in 2011: while the FCC’s list of EAS header codes – the signals included in EAS transmissions that cause stations’ EAS gear to respond in certain ways – already included an NPT option, the national test instead used the Emergency Action Notification (EAN) code, which EAS receivers were programmed to recognize as signaling a real emergency, not a test. This led to a number of less than happy results. So, as we reported last summer, the FCC decided that the NPT code would be used for future nationwide EAS tests.

The trouble with that is that, because the NPT code hadn’t been used before, it’s not clear that all stations’ EAS equipment is currently configured to respond to the NPT code correctly. According to the FCC (which got its information from EAS equipment manufacturers), the NPT code is already recognized in “virtually all existing EAS devices” or, at least, it can be “easily enabled … through simple reconfigurations of the code filters on [stations’] encoder devices.” Ideally, stations have checked their gear since then and made any necessary adjustments. The upcoming test will allow everybody to confirm that the system is set up to react properly to NPT-coded messages. (FEMA also provides instruction to assist operators in the proper manual configuration so that their equipment will properly support such messages.)

If you’re in one of the affected jurisdictions, you have presumably heard about the upcoming test already. FEMA has been organizing it in coordination with state broadcaster associations and state emergency management agencies. If you have any questions, you should probably contact the EAS guru(s) in your state association. You can also reach out to FEMA’s IPAWS National Test Technical Lead Al Kenyon, who has reportedly encouraged broadcasters to contact him at Alfred.Kenyon@fema.dhs.gov with any questions they might have.