FCC approves plans for presidential alert broadcasts

Since the Cold War, America’s broadcasters have used the Emergency Alert System (EAS) to warn audiences of natural disasters and emergencies. Now, in the age of terrorism, the FCC has approved plans for the first test of a presidential alert system.

The alert is a type of broadcast warning that might be issued in the event of a serious natural disaster or terrorism threat. It would allow the White House to quickly and directly alert Americans of impending danger.

The FCC voted last week to require TV and radio stations, cable systems and satellite TV providers to participate in a test that would have them receive and transmit a live code that includes an alert message issued by the president. No date has been set for the test.

The presidential alert would be a national version of the tests that already occur regularly on broadcast TV stations to test a system that issues warnings when tornadoes or severe thunderstorms strike or AMBER Alerts are issued for missing children.

The system being tested is the U.S. EAS, which was created in 1997. It allows the president to be speaking on all broadcast, cable and satellite services, plus satellite radio, in less than 10 minutes’ notice. Although the technology behind the system is tested regularly, there’s never been an actual presidential broadcast. This one will include a message from the president.

“There’s never been a test from top to bottom where it’s issued by FEMA and it goes straight down to all the different levels of EAS to the American public,” said Lisa Fowlkes, of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, on Federal News Radio. “So this is a way for us to — if there were an actual emergency and the federal government needed to activate the presidential EAS — (make) sure that it actually works the way it’s designed to.”

Prior to the test, the public is expected to be educated with a public awareness campaign. It will include workshops, radio and TV announcements and regional outreach. The FCC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Weather Service will work together on the campaign.

FEMA, in a separate development, is already working on a new system that will send emergency alerts as text messages to wireless phone users. The system is still about two years away from full implementation.