WASHINGTON—A new year brought new deadlines and requirements for U.S. broadcasters in the realm of emergency alerting, including an important July 30 date.
A new set of rules and guidelines were adopted when the Federal Communications Commission released its Emergency Alert System Sixth Report and Order in July of last year. Among other things, it established a new national location code, a new EAS Test Reporting System and rules for visual EAS messages. It also formalized requirements for the national periodic test event code. The Report and Order on EAS testing becomes effective July 30.
To prep for the upcoming changes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency officially began rolling out use of the “000000” national location geocode on Jan. 1. The adoption of the six-zero national location code helps provide authorities with the ability to send an Emergency Alert Notification or National Periodic Test nationally, or to focus an alert into a regional level.
Recognizing that transitions like this take time, the code is simultaneously being used alongside the existing Washington geocode, the previous means of communicating a nationwide EAN. Creating this transitional window — in which any EAN will include both the all-zero geocode and the Washington geocode — gives broadcasters a period in which to update equipment or software to ensure that their EAS equipment complies by the July 30 deadline.
“This change simply assures that national-level EAS will not lose any functionality during the implementation period,” said Al Kenyon, national test technical lead for FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS. “Older, non-updated devices will still see what they expect in an EAN, and updated devices will see the All-US geocode and respond accordingly.”
On the testing front, FEMA has spearheaded a number of EAS tests over recent months in an effort to ensure that broadcasters are prepared.
Up next: a February regional test that will cover a wide swath of the East Coast and parts of the Midwest and Gulf Coast. The test is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 24 at 2:20 p.m. EST, and will include Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, D.C., Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Texas, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Virginia.
The test will help participants confirm how systems will respond to an NPT. To get stations up to speed on what will be required in the Feb. 24 test, FEMA organized several non-technical and technical webinars. (For information about the Feb. 9 Webinar on technical aspects, see tinyurl.com/rw-eas4.)
Recent tests of the nation’s EAS system have proven successful. The most recent NPT test — sent on Nov. 17 — included the first bilingual alert message via EAS, with information blocks in English and Spanish. These test sequences were sent to stations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada. According to test organizers, full-message text and voice-spoken audio messages were sent, received and broadcast by the participating test partner stations. Before that, a round of IPAWS tests on Sept. 16 tested the NPT code across six New England states.
Looking ahead to the July 30 deadline, EAS equipment manufacturers and broadcasters have begun the process of updating devices and ensuring their own awareness of the rule changes. Device manufacturers have begun to release software and firmware updates that will enable their devices to comply with the new set of EAS rules established by the Report and Order. According to one observer, EAS device manufacturers are at “varying points” in their efforts to distribute firmware and software updates necessary for full compliance.
Radio World has found that several manufacturers are providing upgrades to existing equipment that will allow compliance with the new EAS rules, while others expected to announce new equipment soon.
Solutions like those from Gorman-Redlich, Digital Alert Systems, Sage Alerting Systems and Trilithic are capable of meeting the technical requirements of the Sixth Report and Order.
The DASDEC-11 emergency communications platform from Digital Alert Systems is programmed for both the “000000” and NPT code, the company said. Its EAS encoder/decoder was used successfully by a number of stations during the November multilingual EAS test.
“However, the FCC’s latest Report and Order mandates some fundamental changes to how the NPT must be handled,” said Edward Czarnecki, senior director of strategy and global government affairs for Digital Alert Systems/Monroe Electronics. These required changes will be included in a forthcoming version DASDEC 3.0 software update, he said.
Gorman-Redlich has upgraded its model EAS-1 system to meet the requirements, including accepting the six-zero location code as the national location code and including the NPT event code as a required event code by default. Units with certain devices are capable of handling these new requirements. “The V9.8 will handle the six-zero code,” said Jim Gorman, president of Gorman-Redlich. “We can also keep the EAS log on the CAP unit so that a printer is no longer required.”
The CAP-DEC 1 common alerting protocol standalone unit from Gorman-Redlich is able to translate received CAP alerts into EAS headers, which are transmitted by an EAS device. The system is a CAP-to-EAS converter unit that treats the 000000 location code as a wild-card location; when an alert is received with the all-zero code included in it, it marks it as “in area” and continues processing the alert as usual for transmission to the attached EAS device.
Sage Alerting Systems will update its firmware to allow Sage Digital ENDEC model 3644 users to comply with the rules. The software update is expected in February and will add 000000 support, said President Harold Price. ENDEC offers text-to-speech capabilities for English, French and Spanish, and is designed for single or clustered analog and HD Radio stations.
Likewise, the Legacy EAS systems and EASyCAP system from Trilithic are equipped to handle the all-zero geocode, said Adam Jones, EAS sales manager for Trilithic. “With Trilithic EAS products this is a simple IP-based upgrade,” he said. ”As far as configuration changes are concerned, our users only need to check mark the ‘Enable National Location Code’ in our software to be complaint.”
It’s unclear how many users of existing EAS gear, if any, will incur costs to comply.
“We haven’t made any pricing decisions, including even if there would be a charge,” Czarnecki said. “Version 3.0 will be, however, a very significant system upgrade. The FCC is mandating some truly fundamental changes to EAN and NPT behavior.”
Customers running Trilithic will not have to pay anything to be in compliance with any of the new rules and regulations, Jones said.
The question of possible costs to make this transition has raised the ire of some. “I support the use of the latest technology to notify the public concern emergencies. However, this could provide a financial hardship to low-power FM broadcasters,” said John Broomall, co-founder of Christian Community Broadcasters, an organization that assists local community organizations in operating low-power FM stations. “LPFM stations are at the bottom of the broadcasting ‘food chain.’ Some only have one watt power, all are limited to 100 watts and as NCE broadcasters they cannot generate revenue by selling advertising.”
In any event, Broomall is one broadcaster who plans to reach out to his local emergency operations center for contributions to any costs to upgrade his LPFM station’s EAS system. As licensee of low-power FM station WPCG, he is also considering submitting an FCC waiver to request that the commission consider allowing new low-power stations to delay purchase of EAS equipment until all technical details in the Report and Order have been finalized.
Meanwhile state broadcast associations have been reminding members of the process. Radio World asked one large group, the Texas Association of Broadcasters, if it had received any complaints from among its 1,000 member stations about steps or costs to upgrade. It had not, said Michael Schneider, vice president of legislative and regulatory affairs for TAB.
To prep its stations, TAB has periodically sent out updates to its members concerning EAS. “For most stations it’s a matter of checking the station EAS unit to ensure it will recognize the national location and national periodic test codes,” Schneider said. The association has informed its stations via weekly emails and a newsletter bulletin that Texas stations will be part of the February IPAWS test.
To ensure that the nation is keeping abreast of emergency alerting technologies across the board, the FCC has also addressed the nation’s wireless emergency alert system. The commission released a notice of proposed rulemaking in November 2015 that proposes to improve the usefulness of the nation’s wireless emergency alert system.
The NPRM is asking for industry comments on a string of proposals, including increasing the length and complexity of WEA messages, improving the geo-targeting of wireless emergency alerts and allowing for local WEA system testing. In the commission’s November Open Meeting, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel pressed the industry to consider the power of activating FM chips in smartphones in an effort to strengthen emergency alerts.