Emergency broadcasts

The commission has issued a new public notice reminding TV stations and other video distributors of their obligation to make emergency information accessible to those with either visual or hearing impairments. As stations in the hurricane and fire danger zones have learned from past experience, there are no exceptions to this requirement, and no excuses will be accepted. The latest public notice makes clear that this policy applies in areas well away from the zones directly affected by the emergency conditions.

Defining emergency information

Section 79.2 of the rules requires that all video distributors make emergency information accessible to those with visual or hearing disabilities (the latter by closed captioning or other visual means). Emergency information means information about a current emergency that is intended to further the protection of life, health, safety and property. To meet this requirement, video distributors must provide critical details regarding the emergency and how to respond to the emergency.

This provision allows for no exceptions or exemptions, even in cases of news that is breaking quickly. Importantly, the rule reaches not only scripted presentations, but also ad lib statements made in the course of live coverage. Fines more than $20,000 have been assessed even when the omissions were relatively small and infrequent, particularly in the context of extended, days-long coverage. For example, a station that warned people to take precautions against inhaling smoke was fined $20,000 for failing to include a visual presentation, by captioning or otherwise, to reach the hearing impaired.

The message is clear: All emergency information aired by a station — which includes information about what areas are affected, evacuation routes and methods of taking shelter in place — must be made available both visually and aurally, without exception. The substance of even an offhand remark, if it contains any relevant information, must be conveyed in a way that makes it accessible to the visually and hearing disabled.

How to provide the info

The method of providing this information can be somewhat crude, such as holding up a handwritten board or reading information aloud. Any crawls must be accompanied by an aural tone to alert visually impaired viewers to tune to another information source, such as the radio. However, network affiliates in the top 25 markets are required to arrange for closed-captioning services.

Additionally, depending on affiliation and market, some stations are allowed to use the electronic newsroom technique (ENT). Such stations must make sure their ENT systems caption nonscripted materials; if the systems do not caption such materials, the station must still make sure that all emergency information is disabled-accessible in some manner.

Geographical requirements

The recent public notice also underscores the wide geographical range of the requirement. The absolute accessibility requirement applies not only to areas of actual danger, but also to those that might be logical evacuation areas. Along these lines, the concept of emergency information includes, for example, where evacuees from the danger zone may obtain relief assistance.

The commission also reminds us that some national events might be of local interest and subject to the requirements of Section 79.2, regardless of the lack of any actual local impact. The FCC does not, however, provide any guidance to stations on how to determine when such an event might fit into this category.

Harry C. Martin is a member of Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth, PLC.


  • Dec. 1 is the deadline for noncommercial TV stations in Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota to file their biennial ownership reports.
  • Dec. 1 is the deadline for TV stations in Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota to electronically file their broadcast EEO midterm reports (Form 397) with the FCC.
  • Dec. 1 is the deadline for TV stations licensed in the following states to place their annual EEO reports in their public files: Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Vermont.
  • The previously-announced Nov. 1 deadline for submission of biennial ownership reports for all commercial TV stations has been suspended pending Office of Management and Budget approval of the FCC's new ownership reporting form.

Send questions and comments to:harry.martin@penton.com