Poor Audio, Gear Glitches Vexed Nationwide EAS Test

WASHINGTON – It took a while to sort through the feedback on the November 2011 nationwide test of the Emergency Broadcast System, but the feds have finally issued their verdict on the results. As reported by multiple broadcasters immediately after the fact, there were problems with the 30-second test, the first to officially exercise the Presidential Emergency Action Notification whereby the president is able to deliver an emergency message through all TV and radio stations, and participating cable and satellite TV operations.

The Federal Communications Commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau summarized what went wrong in a report released Friday:

  • Widespread poor audio quality nationwide;
  • Lack of a Primary Entry Point in the area to provide a direct connection to FEMA;
  • Use of alternatives to PEP-based EAN distribution;
  • Inability of some EAS participants to receive or retransmit the EAN;
  • Short test length; and
  • Anomalies in EAS equipment programming and operation.

The EAS is used for a variety of emergency warnings, from weather to AMBER Alerts to the presidential EAN itself. The EAN is transmitted initially from the president, to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to national Primary Entry Point radio stations that send it to state PEPs, which in turn pass it on to state relays that send it on to local primary stations who again pass it on down the line. Monitoring equipment within each radio and TV operation is supposed to pick up the alert and insert it directly into playout. State- and local-level testing is done regularly. National testing had no precedent.

A total of 16,731 operations participated in the Nov. 9, 2011 test. Of 62 PEPs that received the test, three failed to pass it on to 94 station primaries, 15 of which failed. Of the 724 state relay stations participating, 118 failed, and so forth to a net result of an 18 percent failure rate across the system.

Broadcasters, who comprise the bulk of the EAS network with 11,498 TV and radio stations reported the highest success rate at 83 percent. Cable and IPTV providers totaling 2,944 reported a 73 percent success rate. The commission did not publish the success rate for satellite TV since there are only two providers and “doing so could disclose confidential information.”

The FCC said that while “an overwhelming majority of EAS participants” received the EAN, “several technical issues affected the distribution of the EAN systemwide, including difficulties arising from the audio quality issues of FEMA’s transmission to the PEPs...”

The audio problem was pinned on FEMA. FEMA said it was a problem with a “technical malfunction” at the national PEPs that inserted a second set of EAN tones into the system, creating a feedback loop. Oregon was the only state without a PEP at the time of the test, so KOPB-FM in Portland served the function, but the feedback loop caused EAN to self-terminate there before it was complete. Other stations reported receiving the EAN but being unable to pass it on because the feedback loop made it indecipherable to their EAS equipment.

FEMA said the issue’s been resolved.

As for the length of the test, it was originally planned to go on for two-and-a-half minutes but the FCC shortened it to 30 seconds a week before execution at the behest of Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. The abbreviation caused problems with equipment that couldn’t rebroadcast an EAN shorter than 75 seconds.

“Another EAS participant suggested that the 30-second duration of the test was insufficient to allow its engineers to manually override its equipment when automatic equipment functions failed,” the report said.

With regard to equipment-related anomalies, the Bureau blamed manufacturers for making “certain inconsistent assumptions about the requirements of the EAS rules” that resulted in non-uniform transmissions. E.g., “several participants reported that there was a three-minute delay in their rebroadcast of the EAN,” the commission’s report said.

Monroe Electronics responded that it had interpreted the commission’s rules to follow each element of the EAS header, which in this case listed the “time of transmission” at 2:03 p.m., rather than 2 p.m. as planned.

The Bureau recommended that the commission open a proceeding to consider this and other equipment issues and to review its own EAS rules. It also urged the agency to initiate a review of statewide plans and establish best EAS practices with FEMA, after which another nationwide test should be conducted.

For the second test, the Bureau suggested the FCC create a Nationwide EAS Test Reporting System database to improve filing by participants. All were required to file follow-up reports by Dec. 27, 2011 for the first test, but some still have not done so. The FCC said non-filers may be referred to the Enforcement Bureau “for possible further action.”

~ Deborah D. McAdams