SAN FRANCISCO—If ever the broadcast industry was poised and ready for a test, it seems to be this one. On Sept. 28 at 2:20 pm EDT, EAS broadcast participants will participate in a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System. Set up by the Federal Communications Commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau alongside the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the test is designed to analyze the reliability and effectiveness of the nation’s EAS warning system. The emphasis will be on the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System gateway—aka IPAWS—which is the way that common alerting protocol-based EAS alerts are disseminated.
Broadcasters have to report results of the Sept. 28 tests in the Fcc’s new eAS Test Reporting System portal. The date is set: Sept. 28. And all EAS participants must be prepared to participate in the test on both that day and the backup test date (set for Oct. 5) if the original date is rescheduled due to inclement weather.
FEMA says broadcasters appear ready for the test: “Based on observations of the six regional IPAWS/EAS tests, the broadcast and cable industries generally appear to be ready for the September test,” said FEMA Press Secretary Alexa Lopez.
But preparing for this test—which includes prepping equipment and getting ready for new reporting requirements—has been no easy feat.
COMPLICATED EXTRA STEP
The test will introduce new elements added since the first nationwide test held in 2011. The September 2016 test will be transmitted in English and Spanish and will include both audio and the text of the test message.
The test will also assess the feasibility of a new national code—known in engineering parlance as the six-zero “000000” geocode. On Jan. 1, 2016, FEMA officially began rolling out use of this six-zero national location geocode in an effort to ease the process of sending either an Emergency Alert Notification (EAN) or National Periodic Test (NPT) to stations across the nation.
But this addition has added a complicated step for those stations taking part: they must have gear that can process the all-zero event code in order to bring consistency to the operation of EAS equipment. Stations that continue to operate with EAS gear that have not been upgraded to recognize the 000000 code will be in violation of FCC rules.
Monroe Electronics, a Lyndonville, N.Y.-based developer of EAS gear, has seen a significant uptick in support calls from broadcasters as they prepare themselves for the upcoming test. “We are getting questions about everything from basic device configuration, to upgrading software, to overall systems integration support,” said Ed Czarnecki, senior director for strategy and global government affairs for Monroe.
Although many EAS devices already have the new location code installed in firmware, a number of broadcast associations—such as those in New Hampshire, Michigan and Alabama—are trying to keep their member stations up to date by offering their constituencies step-by-step guidelines on what engineers need to do in order to be compliant.
One of the most beneficial changes made by the FCC after the last National Test in 2011 is how national alerts and tests are relayed to stations, said Larry Wilkins, an engineer with the Alabama Broadcasters Association. “Realizing that the internet is not 100 percent reliable, they have begun updating all the PEP [primary entry point] stations with VSAT equipment while keeping the dial-up as a backup,” he said. “As engineers know all too well, redundancy is the key to proper operation.”
The Alabama State Emergency Communications Committee has taken the added step of installing an FTP server, and has more than 80 stations sending their alert and test files to the SECC automatically, Wilkins said. “The SECC is monitoring those files on a daily basis, mainly for proper reception of items such as the IPAWS Required Weekly Test, State Required Monthly Test and weekly test of our State CAP satellite network,” he said.
While this doesn’t remove the requirement from the station reviewing their log weekly as required, it does give another set of eyes on the operation. “Just recently we discovered and helped two different stations with IT issues which cause the EAS unit not to function correctly,” he said.
The FCC is also requiring all EAS partici-pants to monitor at least two other participants to ascertain that all tests were received, relayed and transmitted correctly.
And then comes the next step: actually reporting the results from the Sept. 28 EAS test.
Those results must be reported to the FCC through a new portal known as the EAS Test Reporting System. The initial registration page, known as Form One, had to be filed by Aug. 26, followed by another more lengthy report, called Form Two, which must be completed before midnight Eastern Time on the day of the test itself and includes only two questions: Did you receive the alert? Did you relay the alert?
The last step: EAS participants must file detailed post-test data on Form Three by Nov. 14. But a fair number of registrants have had concerns in simply registering with the ETRS. Though it has been touted by the commission as a way of improving feedback on the effectiveness of nationwide emergency alert system tests, the path to registering the thousands of broadcast EAS participants has been a bumpy one.
Registrants expressed concerns over coordinates and database organization, the complicated nature of the data required during the registration process, and over the proposed length of time that it would take to complete the registration process—with an official notice in the Federal Register suggesting the registration process could take up to 43 hours.
“Is it really going to take up to 43 hours to do this, and for two stations will that be up to 86 hours?” asked Cal Zethmayr, general sales manager of WAAZ(FM), and WJSB(AM) in Ft. Walton Beach, Fla.
Manufacturers like Monroe are also getting requests for help with the FCC’s ETRS system, as well as other regulatory questions. “The FCC gave an estimate of up to 43 hours needed for a broadcaster to complete the whole ETRS process,” Cznarecki said. “I can tell you that as an EAS device manufacturer, fielding these ETRS-related questions has been occupying a good deal more than 43 manhours each week for our support team.”
Questions have also been raised as to how the ETRS database will handle the load of thousands of participants using the system near-simultaneously on test day. As of early August, the FCC said more than 2,700 filings have been completed by EAS participants. According to an FCC spokesperson, the commission is aware of broadcasters’ concerns with the ETRS registration process and has taken steps to address some of the issues.
To get ready for the September test, the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau has also encouraged EAS participants to review their state EAS plan and confirm that a copy of the current EAS Operating Handbook located at the appropriate locations.
The commission is also conducting webinars to help with the registration process.
“The FCC had the best of intentions with these changes, based on the often-limited input they received from EAS participants, EAS manufacturers and other commentators,” Cznarecki said. “National EAS testing is a necessary exercise. And the ETRS, while it may have some rough edges, could have been a lot worse in execution.
“If anything, we are seeing a fair number of EAS participants come into better compliance, spurred in part by the ETRS requirement,” he said. “So, if nothing else, a side effect of the ETRS may have been saving some broadcasters a lot more pain down the road from potential non-compliance.”