BURBANK, CALIF.: Broadcasters
have 106 days to retrofit their emergency alert operations to process a new open-standard,
XML-based messaging format known as “Common Alerting Protocol.” Don’t count on another
extension of the compliance deadline, Bruce Robertson of Digital Alert Systems told
a group of broadcast engineers this week.
“There’s still a lot in my estimation that needs to be defined,” he said, though
enough information is in place to go forward. “One six-month extension has already
been granted. It may be advisable, but at this particular point, I don’t believe
there’s going to be any extension of that September 30 deadline.”
The CAP standard was approved last fall by the Federal Emergency Management Agency
to amalgamate the alerting process for the various agencies that issue warnings.
Using CAP, local, state and federal officials will, in theory, be able to send a
single warning that can be picked up by TVs, radios, cellphones, computers and other
communications platforms such as digital signage.
Multiple emergency management agencies must be contacted to distribute a national
alert with the current system. It’s main distribution platform is the Emergency
Alert System comprising TV and radio, and consists mainly of the familiar break-in
tone followed by an audio warning and text. CAP also enables the use of files, images,
video and hyperlinks, Robertson told members of the Los Angeles chapter of the Society
of Broadcast Engineers on Tuesday.
NETWORK vs. DAISY CHAIN
CAP is part of a larger federal effort to update the nation’s emergency alert
capability, known as the Integrated Alert Public Warning System, or IPAWS. Where
the old EAS structure was a daisy chain of sorts--where designated radio stations
in each market received the original alert and sent it to a list of TV and radio
stations, which in turn sent it to other radio and TV operations, including cable
and satellite. The new structure is a data network system whereby an alert is sent
to an Emergency Operations Center, which files the message and forwards it to a
“Getting it out from the file server is still being worked on,” Robertson said.
“It’s defined as an initial push, and then a pull to load it.”
An engineer at the SBE meeting responded that RSS feeds could be employed, and that
the new CAP converter boxes would do the pulling by pinging the EOC server at defined
CAP converters are supposed to be Part 11 specified, to insure every certified
product, independent of the vendor, can communicate with other productions with
that spec. Robertson noted that few vendors offer CAP converter boxes with conformity
certification. (A search of FEMA’s Responder
Knowledge Base product page
shows three.) He reminded the group that converters would not install inline with old EAS equipment,
but required additional audio inputs.
Robertson said that, unlike the current EAS system, CAP allows frequent updates.
“If you issued a storm warning for an hour, you couldn’t go back and retract it.
You’d have to issue another storm warning for a shorter period of time. CAP will
be a digital database that allows frequent updates available via the EOC servers,”
However, he said. each new update generates a new EAS activation, with more interrupts.
It is also still uncertain if the devices can support “governors must-carry” messages.
The gear itself is not expense, Robertson said. The cost “per stream” can be less
than $1,000 in some cases, but he said to plan for long-term consequences. Gear
must be flexible enough to accommodate change, and be two-way software driven to
enable upgrades. He also said that while one TCP/IP port is sufficient now, more
would provide for “segmentation.”
There’s also the issue of being able to accommodate TCP/IP. “There are still stations
out there on mountains without Internet connections.” Robertson noted. He recommended
that stations “consider installation of a dedicated Internet connection for CAP
equipment.” He said he didn’t know of any current products available to enable legacy
EAS equipment to handle CAP.
One new key element of CAP for broadcasters is that it streamlines the logging
process. Broadcasters are required to keep a log of all EAS tests. CAP enables electronic
logging, which the FCC has OK’d as long as a record can be printed out upon request.
Robertson stressed the importance of keeping accurate logs.
“The FCC Enforcement Bureau has leveled several EAS fines lately,” he said. One
recent example is a Comcast
system in Florence, Ala., that was fined $16,000 for not retransmitting EAS messages
to “certain customers,” according to the FCC notice. Last fall, a Kansas broadcaster
incurred $11,000 in fines for not having EAS equipment plugged in, and thus failing
to conduct the required tests.
THIS IS ONLY A TEST
While broadcasters conduct weekly and monthly tests within their designated
market areas, no national test has ever been conducted--intentionally. Robertson
said the Emergency Activation Notification was twice activated accidentally. Two
limited-area tests were conducted in Alaska in the last year-and-a-half that left
“a lot of things to be desired,” Robertson said. Glitches included dead air, improperly
installed or nonfunctional decoders, and bad audio.
Audio remains a concern for broadcasters, now facing a nationwide test scheduled
for Nov. 9, 2011 at 2 p.m. EDT.
“I know this is a big issue, from engineers to program directors to general managers,”
said Adrienne Abbott, chair of the Nevada SECC and a founding member of the Broadcast
Warning Working Group. Abbott attended a FEMA/EAS virtual roundtable June 9 and
posted her observations.
“Everyone has a concern or complaint about audio quality issues. . . We have all
tried to work with our state and local emergency managers and the National Weather
Service on improving the audio quality.”
The audio issue was clear on the morning of Feb. 28 in Los Angeles when KCRW-FM
passed through an AMBER Alert from the L.A. County Sheriff’s department. The message
was garbled and nearly indecipherable. (See
“Amber Alert Radio Transmission
is Barely Audible.”
Robertson reminded broadcasters that comments are due June 28 on the Federal
Communications Commission’s CAP-compliance proposed rulemaking. It seeks feedback
on the use of RSS feeds; a possible extension for stations without Internet connectivity;
and FCC compliance testing of equipment, among other items. The docket is No. 04-296.
Robertson said to expect other considerations not yet mentioned in the docket. He
said two committees were involved in work on closed-captioned emergency messaging
on the Internet and video description emergency messaging on TV over IP.
“One of the sad things about these committees is that television stations were not
heavily represented in these areas,” he said.
~ Deborah D. McAdams
See . . .
June 15, 2011: “Alabama
Has ‘First Statewide CAP-Compliant Rollout”
Global Security Systems said its GSS Alert Studio has been designated the official
origination and retrieval tool for Alabama’s Emergency Alert System.
June 10, 2011: “EAS
National Test Date Raises More Questions”
Questions from broadcasters and others on the SBE EAS listserv today include
how often a national EAS test might be conducted after the initial test and exactly
what it may entail.
June 9, 2011: “First National EAS Test
Scheduled for November”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Communications Commission
will conduct the test Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 2 p.m. EST. The duration may last up
to three-and-a-half minutes.
May 9, 2011: “EAS Gear Receives FEMA’s OK”
The Monroe Electronics Digital Alert Systems division today said its digital emergency
alert platforms have been certified compliant for the new Integrated Public Alert
and Warning System.
February 8, 2011: “FEMA: List of CAP-Compliant Gear Expected
Several experts say broadcasters will continue to be the backbone in a new Emergency
Alert System. That’s one bit of news out of a recent webinar on broadcasting’s transition
to the Common Alerting Protocol for next-generation EAS, which will encompass wireless
and broadband platforms.
September 30, 2010: “FEMA Adopts Standard for
“People get their news and information from a wider variety of sources today
than ever before, and it’s important that emergency management officials are able
to reach members of the public no matter what medium they may be using. The Common
Alerting Protocol gives us the opportunity to send one message over all IPAWS alert
systems at the same time.”