The FCC Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau released its long awaited report on the first national test of the Emergency Alert System conducted on Nov. 9, 2011. The report, Strengthening the Emergency Alert System (EAS): Lessons Learned from the Nationwide EAS Test, shows an 83 percent success rate for broadcasters in the national test compared with a 73 percent success rate for cable operators. The report notes that many cable operators did not submit the required filings on the national test and that the PSHSB “plans to confirm cases of continued non-filers and refer them to the Enforcement Bureau for possible further action.”
Many stations reported problems with audio during the national test. The report explained the reason for this: “FEMA attributed this poor audio quality to “[a] technical malfunction [that] occurred at the National Primary level that introduced a second set of EAN headers into the system. This affected the audio quality for many downstream stations and in some cases, resulted in duplicated messages or muted the audio test message.” FEMA informed the PSHSB that it has taken several actions to resolve the problem, including correcting FEMA Primary Entry Point technical configurations to eliminate message duplication, testing and deploying a two-way satellite network to improve connectivity and audio quality between the FEMA Operations Center and PEP stations, working with PEP EAS device manufacturers to correct potential technical anomalies, working with its FOC and the telephone bridge manufacturer to upgrade the system to prevent any accidental return and repeat of audio during an EAN event, and continuing to test the FEMA PEP network and equipment twice weekly.
Differences in how EAS equipment handled the EAN accounted for some of the problems during the test. One common problem was equipment rejecting the EAN because of its Washington, D.C. location code. Monroe Electronics EAS units delayed the message for retransmission until the “time of transmission” in the EAS header (2:03 p.m.) instead of transmitting it when the message was received three minutes earlier, while some other manufacturers' EAS equipment was programmed to override the “time of transmission code” when an EAN was received. There were also differences in the language the EAS equipment generates from an EAN. The report notes, “many EAS participants' equipment generated a text crawl that went by too quickly or was in a difficult to read font.”
Several EAS participants reported difficulties understanding their monitoring assignment in their state EAS plan. PSHSB recommends the FCC consider issuing a Public Notice encouraging State Emergency Communications Committees “to review and update their EAS plans, as necessary, to ensure they contain accurate and up-to-date information regarding monitoring assignments as required by FCC rules.” SECCs were required to amend their state EAS plans to include the new CAP-based IPAWS Internet-based monitoring obligation. The report notes, “Although EAS Participants are not required to receive state EAS alerts, CAP-based or otherwise, the time is ripe for the Commission to consider what, if any, changes to its rules regarding state EAS plans are necessary in light of the introduction to CAP-based EAS. In addition, the Commission should also consider whether to make the state EAS plan process into an online, rather than a paper filing, process.” Putting the state EAS plan process online sounds like a good idea and would avoid the problem of broadcasters and cable companies using outdated paper plans and the hassle of trying to find a current copy of their state's EAS plan.
The report outlines several steps that the FCC, FEMA and other EAS stakeholders need to take to prepare for the next nationwide EAS test. These include additional FCC rulemakings to decide whether to use the National Periodic Test code instead of the EAN code; use of a national location code instead of Washington, D.C., and considering rule changes to bring more consistency to the way EAS equipment processes the EAN. FEMA has recommended the FCC consider adopting a national location code and consider changing its rules regarding the NPT code “so that it serves as a viable and less burdensome alternative to use of the EAN.” The report also said, “the Commission should consider creating a new electronic filing system to facilitate electronic filing of test result data for any future nationwide EAS test.”
The report did not propose a date for the next nationwide EAS test. It concluded that “The first ever Nationwide EAS Test was a success in that it demonstrated that the national EAS would generally perform as designed, if activated. At the same time, the test shined a bright light on several areas – systemic and local – requiring improvement.”
Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.
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