Local/Regional EAS Tests Come to Forefront

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WASHINGTON—Broadcasters be ready: Localized tests of the nation’s IPAWS and EAS systems have begun.

On Sept. 10, the city of Rochester, Minn., was one of the first municipalities in the nation to test out a new multilingual, multiplatform capability within the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. IPAWS was used to deliver an emergency notification via television, radio and cellphone text message, which was coordinated around a simulated local emergency. The messages were delivered in English, Spanish, Somali and Hmong, four important languages in the Rochester area, and were coordinated in conjunction with local law enforcement and ECHO Minnesota, an emergency readiness group.

Next, ECHO will begin testing two additional alerts in Minnesota: transmitting a simulation of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) and Emergency Alerts System (EAS); and simulating the audible portion of the EAS codes in public service announcements. On Sept. 22, the FCC Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau approved a 12-month period during which ECHO can test these alerts.

In granting the request to ECHO, the commission pointed to the group’s focus on individuals who do not speak English as a primary language and ECHO’s assurance that any PSAs that simulate the EAS code would not trigger a false alert. “We believe that the overall benefit to the public of the PSAs outweighs any potential dissipation of recognition value that may accrue from their use,” the FCC said in its order. The commission stipulated that if ECHO receives complaints regarding false alerts arising from the broadcast, it must immediately cease transmission and alert the commission within 24 hours.

Later that week and halfway across the country, six New England states participated in a FEMA IPAWS regional test distributed via EAS using a test code that’s being perfected in preparation for a future nationwide EAS test, said Roger Stone, acting assistant administrator of FEMA’s National Continuity Programs, in a release. It had been announced in July. This National Periodic Test message was distributed via EAS and FEMA’s All-Hazards Information Feed at the same time a Required Monthly Test message was distributed via WEA.

The Sept. 16 EAS test was sent over radio, television and cable stations in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The New England test was designed to assess the readiness of the IPAWS infrastructure that eventually will be used to distribute a national-level EAS test message to radio, television and cable operators.

Initial indications are that the New England test was successful, an insider involved with testing coordination told RW. Field observations are on a par with previous EAS tests in West Virginia and in the four-state grouping of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, the source said.

That was certainly the case for those stations in Maine, said Suzanne Goucher, president of the Maine Association of Broadcasters. “By all accounts, the test was a success,” she told Radio World, though she noted a couple of hiccups at a few stations such as distorted audio or no audio at all. She said those may have been on the station end and that the vast majority of stations reported receiving the alert clearly. Other stations reported the test and pass-through were executed flawlessly, she said.

The next step for the Maine Association of Broadcasters, she said, is to ensure that all stations update for the 000000 location code and, for stations that didn’t participate in the Sept. 16 test, to make sure they have the NPT test code activated in their boxes ahead of the FCC’s July 2016 deadline for doing so, Goucher said. “This test was a good spur for stations to at least get the NPT piece in place,” she said. The FCC plans to adopt a national location code of six zeroes (000000) for national EAS alerts and will continue to use the existing National Periodic Test (NPT) code for future testing.

During the Sept. 16 live test, FEMA fielded six observers equipped with systems capable of capturing multiple radio and television broadcast signals off the air. Once these capture systems are back in the IPAWS lab, capture files will be downloaded and analyzed, and FEMA will check with those stations that reported problems or unexpected EAS device behavior to try and learn more about possible failure modes.

These details were shared during several technical webinars on the regional IPAWS system in the weeks leading up to the test.

This information is expected to be shared with broadcasters, cable system operators and state emergency communications committees so they can best set up their EAS equipment and coordinate state EAS plans. This full analysis is expected to take two to three weeks.

It was in 2007 that FEMA began modernizing the nation’s public alert and warning system by integrating new technologies into existing alert systems. The resultant IPAWS is designed to connect emergency managers, police and fire departments to multiple communications channels to send alerts to the public during a disaster.

The timeline for future regional and national IPAWS tests has not yet been formally announced.

Meanwhile, calls to improve EAS continue. A Washington engineering consulting firm this month pressed the FCC and FEMA to create a 24-hour hotline to determine the legitimacy of an EAS alert. The firm Cohen Dippell and Everist submitted a letter to the FCC on Sept. 11 in response to the FCC Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding the EAS that was released in July.

The firm said the FCC must take action to confirm the authenticity of EAS messages, pointing to an event in 2013 at a television station in Montana in which hackers broke into the station’s Emergency Alert System.

“It is only a matter of time before another more sinister attempt will be made to engage and distribute false information through the EAS,” the letter stated. Therefore, it is urgent that the agencies provide the broadcast community a way to confirm the authenticity of a supposedly suspicious EAS message, according to the firm.

The proposal from Cohen Dippell and Everist was made in response to the FCC Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding the EAS that was released in July.