180-day CAP countdown begins

On Thursday afternoon, Sept. 30, FEMA officially adopted the new Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) message format. The agency’s adoption of the message format represents a significant step toward implementing a nationwide warning system that extends across multiple platforms.

According to FEMA, “This open standard will enable alert messages to be easily composed by emergency management officials for communication with citizens using a much broader set of devices to reach as many people as possible." Not stated, but important for broadcast and cable companies, is that this action starts a 180-day clock to complete upgrades to facility EAS equipment. As a part of the FCC EAS order in 2007, the commission mandated that all EAS participants must be able to accept CAP-based EAS messages within 180 days from the time that FEMA publishes the applicable standards for CAP.

Now some background.

Since the days of CONELRAD, which was started in 1951, broadcasters represented the primary (in most cases, the only) link between local, state and national emergency officials and the public. CONELRAD was replaced by EBS in 1963 and further upgraded to EAS in 1997, which included cable participation. As of 2007, DBS providers, including both radio and TV, have been required to participate.

According to the FEMA website, “Historically, the public depended exclusively on radio and television to receive alerts, but current research shows that the reach of radio and TV is less than 40 percent of the populace during the workday. While less than 12 percent of the population is watching TV in the middle of the night, an even smaller number is tuned into the radio, at 5 percent of the populace.”

This means that because of technology, Americans now enjoy a wide variety of newer entertainment and communications platforms. Almost 90 percent of the U.S. population now relies on cell phones. The result of new ways to access entertainment and to communicate with people means it’s both easier and harder to inform them about potentially dangerous situations, hence the development of IPAWS, an Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.

FEMA also claims that “62 percent” of Americans are using the Internet for 108 minutes a day. While it claims IPAWS will permit authorities to “access multiple broadcast and other communications pathways for the purpose of creating and activating alert and warning messages,” just how that will be accomplished via the Internet is unclear.

However, according to retired Rear Adm. James Arden Barnett Jr., chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, "The adoption of the new CAP standard will ultimately transform America's emergency alert and warning capabilities and better enable Americans to receive these potentially life-saving alerts over TV and radio broadcast stations, via the Internet and on their cell phones.”

The bottom line for station and cable engineers is that it is time to contact your EAS equipment supplier and determine what steps you must take to upgrade your equipment. Some FCC staff members acknowledged yesterday that the agency has already received several requests for extensions of time to complete the work and that these requests were under consideration. However, prudent planning says that it’s not too early to learn what your equipment vendor is planning and when the required modifications will be available.

For more information, the see the CAP IPAWS standards specifications here and the CAP implementation guide here.