Creating a next-generation EAS system involves not only technology but operational workflows, cross-agency cooperation, and not a small amount of politics. Nevertheless, the process has begun. But when a new system becomes reality, what form it will take, what the implication will be for broadcasters and other EAS participants remains up in the air.
In 2004 and 2005, the FCC requested comments on how EAS could be improved and received hundreds of responses. On July 12, 2007, the FCC ordered that broadcasters must be able to accept messages using Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) v1.1 no later than 180 days after FEMA publicly publishes its adoption of such standard.
An executive order signed by President Bush in June 2006 clarified that FEMA will be the lead agency on advanced EAS.
In addition, the agency was tasked to develop a system that has distribution and content based on “geographic location, risks or personal user preferences,” the ability to warn all Americans including those with disabilities and those without an understanding of English, and to make sure that the president can alert and warn the American people under all conditions.
FEMA also must “ensure the conduct of training, tests, and exercises for the public alert and warning system.”
So the onus is now on FEMA to define the next-generation EAS system, with the FCC to then make the necessary rule changes. FEMA has created some pilot programs, but the final design is not yet completed.
FEMA IN CHARGE
“The FCC has not gone as far as we hoped they would,” said Kelly Williams, senior director of engineering and technology policy at NAB. “They essentially deferred to FEMA, which is handling the job as part of an executive order to put together a public alerting system.”
Williams said that NAB concurs that FEMA is the right agency to lead this effort since it has connections to emergency management offices and others experienced in creating and delivering alert messages. “They know what types of alert messages work,” Williams said. “The FCC can’t really say what an alert is and how to create an alert.”
Although FEMA has made no final decisions on employing CAP-compliant equipment, in general, the FCC in its July order anticipates that CAP messages will be part of the new system, and is giving EAS participants and manufacturers a heads-up on what the commission feels is likely to occur.
However, in a footnote, the order states, “by adopting a requirement to accept CAP messages sent by FEMA, we do not intend to conclude or assume that FEMA will adopt the CAP protocol; however, should FEMA adopt the CAP protocol, we find that there is ample evidence in the record to support the CAP requirements set forth herein.”
CAP, developed by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), is a text-based, XML-based, open and interoperable standard (XML stands for eXtensible Markup Language). It allows emergency managers to create alert messages in some detail and send those messages out via a variety of different distribution paths to many different platforms, including EAS messages from broadcast, cable, satellite TV and radio, plus cell phones, text messaging, e-mails and signs along highways. The receive devices decode the CAP message and present information appropriate to each device.
For example, a highway sign would display text. For TV, CAP can provide both audio messages plus real-time text of those audio messages that can feed a character generated crawl.
“The great news about all of this is that television, [which] has long been stuck with using the vague and sometimes misleading header codes for crawl generation, will find that the new system will be text-based,” said Clay Freinwald, RF systems engineer for Entercom-Seattle, and Society of Broadcast Engineers (SBE) EAS Committee chairman. “This means that the specific event information now contained in the voice portion of the existing message will be in the crawl. I view this as the major plus for TV.”
Among its features, CAP provides for message prioritization, geographical targeting, links to additional information, like audio, video, image, or data files, multilanguage message translation, plus security features to authenticate the sender and message, and encryption—although which of these features any given receive site would have to handle is also yet to be determined.
Williams said that while CAP is a start, “FEMA needs to do more than this. FEMA needs to say what the infrastructure is. Is the President the one to send messages? What is the actual path? Does it [the message] go to satellite or IP, phone lines, or satellite to every station, or by some [means] we haven’t thought of yet?”
What are the details? “Will we need to put up a satellite dish on the roof? We’ll need the specification for interconnection to the infrastructure,” Williams said. “What are the operational rules? Will we still be required to do tests? If this is a federal infrastructure, how will it work for state or local jurisdictions?”
Will there be improvements in the current EAS itself? Will the daisy chain, used in the current EAS system to relay alert messages from one broadcast station to another, still be needed? Williams asks: What will broadcasters need to do to get messages to their listeners and viewers? What will be the technical specifications to convert from CAP to EAS alerts? How will new devices handle CAP messages?
“Just because the emergency management office and CAP can do something, doesn’t mean that the devices can carry it,” Williams said.
There are some who feel that the current EAS system itself can be improved to complement CAP. A key proponent of this argument is engineer Frank Bell, who has written a proposal detailing the specifics on what he terms EAS+.
“EAS+ is not intended to do more than a CAP system,” Bell said. “That is why it is best applied as an alerting technology, not the emergency management core.”
But more immediately, what do broadcasters do now?
“There are no systems in place to comply with,” Williams said. “We’re waiting for the FCC to give us the rules, but it can’t until FEMA gives us a system.”
Meanwhile the current EAS system remains in place, and the FCC order specifically affirms the commission’s intention to preserve the current system, while enhancing “its effectiveness, scope, and redundancy by enabling EAS delivery system upgrades and by including wireline common carriers providing video programming.”
There are few details on how FEMA will proceed with its development of a next generation EAS system, and how interested parties can provide input to the process.
RIGHT NOW, DO NOTHING
Last October, SBE chaired a meeting in Washington that included representatives of the FCC, FEMA, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NAB, and National Alliance of State Broadcast Associations (NASBA).
“The agencies all said that input from the broadcast industry is needed and will be solicited to help design the system,” an SBE report of that meeting said. “FEMA said that their IPAWS [Integrated Public Alert and Warning System] plan will essentially be a ‘system of systems’ and that a next generation of EAS would constitute one of those systems... SBE representatives came away from the meeting feeling that there will likely be no action required of local broadcasters for at least a year and possibly longer.”
Freinwald said that there are a number of great ideas being floated about on how to improve emergency alerting, but that it’s too early to comment on what the government may be willing to consider.
“My guess is that we will, hopefully, see some working groups that are comprised of representatives from the industry that will assist FEMA in coming up with a system that will be rolled out in such a way that it will operate in, perhaps, parallel with the existing system,” he said. “The good news is once we are using CAP as the universal emergency message source language, a whole lot of things suddenly become possible. Think of this as moving from a hardware-based system to one based in software. Once that change is made, future changes are a whole lot easier. Of course there is always going to be the political aspect of anything, but that is another story.”