NAB, MSTV & SBE Urge 'Strong Federal Oversight' on EAS Upgrades

Earlier this year the FCC initiated a review of the Emergency Alert System (EAS). In comments filed last week, the Society of Broadcast Engineers (SBE) urged increased Federal oversight to resolve problems with the current system. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the Association of Maximum Service Television (MSTV) filed joint comments and pointed out that revitalization "cannot be achieved through broadcaster mandates alone" and also supported "strong Federal oversight for public warning."

Both felt the existing EAS infrastructure should be maintained, but that methods for delivering alert information to stations should be improved. MSTV/NAB praised FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning Systems (IPAWS) program and the use of digital technology to upgrade the national 34 Primary Entry Points (PEP) radio stations to a satellite based system. SBE also recommended using State Relay Networks (SRNs) and Local Relay Networks (LRNs) for distributing alerts to broadcast stations.

"The concept of having a LP [local primary] station be a relay link for emergency weather and civil authority messages is, in many cases, a failure and is a major reason for the lack of effective local EAS," SBE noted in its comments, adding that "broadcast stations should never be used as relay devices and that all EAS participants should be required to monitor the NWS. With the vast majority of EAS messages being weather related, it is vital that these direct connections be made. With the integration of NWR into EAS and their increasing role as a provider of All Hazard warnings, the FCC should swiftly move in this direction."

NAB and MSTV said the FCC lacks the authority to mandate state and local EAS participation. The NPRM asked whether the FCC should adopt rules requiring broadcasters to turn over their stations to local emergency managers. MSTV and NAB said "no." SBE responded, "If indeed EAS is to become a workable and functioning public warning tool, the answer to this question is an emphatic but qualified 'yes.' SBE thinks that it is extremely premature to even think of requiring broadcasters to participate with local EAS systems, considering the dysfunctional condition of EAS will be resoundedly rejected by the broadcast industry."

SBE urged the Commission to require NWS and local emergency managers undergo mandatory training and certification "to ensure that they understand the gravity of issuing an EAS code that broadcast stations and cable systems, and likely other Commission licensees, receive. Such training has been an integral part of national level warning origination, so it is reasonable, SBE feels, to require such training for any person who originates EAS messages. SBE also believes that NWS has to convince broadcasters that it will do a better job of targeting warnings only to those Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) codes published by the U.S. Census Bureau representing communities or areas actually at imminent risk of a tornado, as opposed to 'shot gunning' all the FIPS codes within an entire county."

SBE noted an incident in Washington State where a county issued an EAS evacuation message for a portion of the county. The voice portion of the message described the areas that were to be evacuated, while local TV stations and cable system ran a crawl that called for the entire county to be evacuated. SBE said, "This is a serious matter that must be resolved as part of this EAS overhaul." One solution described by SBE was to enhance the EAS message with a form of text transmission tied to the EAS protocol that would be transmitted immediately after the EAS "package" so that it wouldn't get on the air in the audio portion of the programming.

NAB/MSTV pointed out that broadcasters often supply more detailed information to the public than the canned EAS text messages provide and said that, in light of the proposed EAS changes, the FCC must finally resolve the problems with cable TV overriding broadcast station emergency information. On digital cable systems, the EAS function is implemented in the set-top box (STB) at the customer's premises, making it impossible for cable operators to implement selective overrides, according to the two organizations. In the case of the Motorola Broadband STB, it obliterates the programming on every channel with a text message on a blue screen, making it impossible for cable viewers to see live coverage of the emergency event on local TV stations. NAB and MSTV pointed out that broadcasters typically provide live news coverage of abducted children via the AMBER alert system, storms, fires, widespread power failures, industrial explosions, toxic chemical discharges, nuclear facility incidents and civil disorder that is interrupted by the blue screen on digital cable systems using this STB.

Both the Joint Comments and SBE Comments supported requirements for upgrading existing EAS hardware, provided broadcasters were given sufficient time to complete the upgrades. Both also supported extending EAS to digital TV broadcasting and digital audio broadcasting.

These are just some of the points raised in the SBE and NAB/MSTV filings. If you are involved with EAS activity at your station or multichannel video distribution system, please take time to read the Comments of the Society of Broadcast Engineers, Inc. and the Joint Comments of the National Association of Broadcasters and the Association for Maximum Service Television, Inc.