SBE Offers Plan to Help FEMA Move on CAP

Frustrated by the lack of progress by FEMA, the Society of Broadcast Engineers offered a preliminary strategy to help move CAP (Common Alerting Protocol) from FEMA’s offices to broadcast stations and emergency operations centers.

SBE EAS Committee Chair Clay Freinwald and other SBE members offered the plan at the FCC EAS Summit Tuesday, where some panelists blasted FEMA for dragging its feet in mandating CAP, leaving broadcasters, vendors, and public safety officials hanging.

An FCC order last May gave broadcasters a 180-day timetable to comply with an alerting protocol as soon as FEMA decides on the spec. Most of the EAS community leans toward CAP Version 1.1, a spec already in use in some state networks. The CAP spec would then be central to a next-generation multiplatform nationwide system of emergency notification networks to replace the current patchwork system of alerts.

The SBE proposes an advisory committee, working groups, the establishment of goals and timelines, and a final report to the FCC and FEMA.

The strategy includes setting up working groups. One group would develop the CAP Profile that FEMA would mandate for use in every state. That mission would include development of security and authentication features and coordination with the HazCollect CAP Profile, the National Weather Service and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Other working groups would tackle distribution networks; on-air presentation; training; equipment; and on FCC and FEMA rules and directives.

“There is a general level of frustration that exists in the broadcast engineering community with the lack of progress [by FEMA],” Freinwald said at the FCC event.

He said the proposal was not directed at FEMA of any other agency, although he did give a copy to Lance Craver, director of FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).

“We wanted to do what we could do, perhaps move this process along by offering these suggestions,” Freinwald said in an e-mail after the summit.

Art Botterell, an architect of CAP now managing the community warning system for the Sheriff of Contra Costa County (Calif.), and others called on FEMA to hurry up already with the CAP declaration so states and local authorities can move forward with their local emergency notification plans and broadcasters and governments can make the necessary technology investments.

Botterell said California emergency operators already have a network with a CAP-based architecture, with connections to multiple sources of information and the flexibility to localize messages over cable and telephone landlines. Several other states also have working emergency notification plans that use CAP.

“Lead, follow or get the heck out of the way,” Botterell said to FEMA’s Craver. “Please don’t hold up progress in this space by holding all the implementers in suspense.”

Botterell said FEMA inaction would lead to another patchwork quilt of systems—like the current system the nation is trying to move past.

Craver warned against moving too quickly.

“With the interoperability of alert and warning systems at stake, we really need to get this decision right,” he said.

For example, FEMA and other Department of Homeland Security agencies are now working to develop a test center for CAP-related gear, he said, to make sure that equipment does what it’s supposed to do when the time comes.

Nor is CAP the savior for all the problems with the current patchwork of notification systems, some warned. In fact, its added features and complexity will require more attention, maintenance and staff training than current systems.

FEMA is also at the center of the new digital EAS (d-EAS), a national network for presidential-level alerts using the PBS satellite backbone. The nation is increasing the number of Primary Entry Points (PEPs) in that system from 36 to 63, and has run pilot programs in seven states and Puerto Rico, and plans implementation in another five states by hurricane season. Ultimately, the national d-EAS system will integrate with systems for state and local notifications.

FEMA didn’t catch all the blame. Ann Arnold, longtime president of the Texas Association of Broadcasters, suggested that her state’s governor doesn’t know what EAS is; in 2003, when the space shuttle break up occurred over Texas, the governor called for an Amber Alert, she said. And during a recent wildfire, local emergency notification was limited to Texas rangers driving down the roads with bullhorns, calling for evacuations as two elderly women died watching a soap opera.

Broadcasters also took a few hits. Some public safety officials spoke of their own frustrations trying to notify broadcasters and cable operators with emergency messages. Absent a mandate to run the information, some broadcasters did and some didn’t, and some put the information on the news several hours later. Consultant Dale Gehman said recent audits at cable systems found widespread failure points.

Such failings highlighted the need, most agreed, for more training for thousands of emergency personnel and broadcasters. Most agreed also that the federal government should provide the funding and better overall coordination.

“We have a lack of national leadership,” said Botterell. “And I don’t mean mandates, I mean inspirational leadership—standard practices, diagrams of infrastructure that works, the exchange of information from one state to another. We don’t have a mechanism for that.”

Read more about the EAS issue in Radio World’sThe Leslie Report.