– It took a while to sort
through the feedback on the November 2011 nationwide test of the Emergency
Broadcast System, but the feds have finally issued their verdict on the
results. As reported by multiple broadcasters immediately after the fact, there
were problems with the 30-second test, the first to officially exercise the
Presidential Emergency Action Notification whereby the president is able to
deliver an emergency message through all TV and radio stations, and
participating cable and satellite TV operations.
The Federal Communications Commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau
summarized what went wrong in a report released Friday:
Widespread poor audio quality nationwide;
Lack of a Primary Entry Point in the area to provide a direct connection to
Use of alternatives to PEP-based EAN distribution;
Inability of some EAS participants to receive or retransmit the EAN;
Short test length; and
Anomalies in EAS equipment programming and operation.
The EAS is used for a variety of emergency warnings, from weather to AMBER
Alerts to the presidential EAN itself. The EAN is transmitted initially from
the president, to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to national Primary
Entry Point radio stations that send it to state PEPs, which in turn pass it on
to state relays that send it on to local primary stations who again pass it on
down the line. Monitoring equipment within each radio and TV operation is
supposed to pick up the alert and insert it directly into playout. State- and
local-level testing is done regularly. National testing had no precedent.
A total of 16,731 operations participated in the Nov. 9, 2011 test. Of 62 PEPs
that received the test, three failed to pass it on to 94 station primaries, 15
of which failed. Of the 724 state relay stations participating, 118 failed, and
so forth to a net result of an 18 percent failure rate across the system.
Broadcasters, who comprise the bulk of the EAS network with 11,498 TV and radio
stations reported the highest success rate at 83 percent. Cable and IPTV
providers totaling 2,944 reported a 73 percent success rate. The commission did
not publish the success rate for satellite TV since there are only two
providers and “doing so could disclose confidential information.”
The FCC said that while “an overwhelming majority of EAS participants” received
the EAN, “several technical issues affected the distribution of the EAN systemwide,
including difficulties arising from the audio quality issues of FEMA’s
transmission to the PEPs...”
The audio problem was pinned on FEMA. FEMA said it was a problem with a
“technical malfunction” at the national PEPs that inserted a second set of EAN
tones into the system, creating a feedback loop. Oregon was the only state
without a PEP at the time of the test, so KOPB-FM in Portland served the
function, but the feedback loop caused EAN to self-terminate there before it
was complete. Other stations reported receiving the EAN but being unable to
pass it on because the feedback loop made it indecipherable to their EAS
FEMA said the issue’s been resolved.
As for the length of the test, it was originally planned to go on for
two-and-a-half minutes but the FCC shortened it to 30 seconds a week before
execution at the behest of Secretary
of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. The abbreviation caused problems with
equipment that couldn’t rebroadcast an EAN shorter than 75 seconds.
“Another EAS participant
suggested that the 30-second duration of the test was insufficient to allow its
engineers to manually override its equipment when automatic equipment functions
failed,” the report said.
With regard to equipment-related anomalies, the Bureau blamed manufacturers for
making “certain inconsistent assumptions about the requirements of the EAS
rules” that resulted in non-uniform transmissions. E.g., “several participants
reported that there was a three-minute delay in their rebroadcast of the EAN,”
the commission’s report said.
Monroe Electronics responded that it had interpreted the commission’s rules to
follow each element of the EAS header, which in this case listed the “time of
transmission” at 2:03 p.m., rather than 2 p.m. as planned.
The Bureau recommended that the commission open a proceeding to consider this
and other equipment issues and to review its own EAS rules. It also urged the
agency to initiate a review of statewide plans and establish best EAS practices
with FEMA, after which another nationwide test should be conducted.
For the second test, the Bureau suggested the FCC create a Nationwide EAS Test
Reporting System database to improve filing by participants.
required to file follow-up reports by Dec. 27, 2011 for the first test, but
some still have not done so. The FCC said non-filers may be referred to the
Enforcement Bureau “for possible further action.”
~ Deborah D. McAdams