The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Government Accountability Office (GAO) have each issued Reports concerning the effectiveness of the nation’s Emergency Alert Service (EAS), the national public warning system that requires broadcasters, cable operators, and other communications service providers to provide the President with communications capability to address the American people during a national emergency. The FCC Report, “Strengthening the Emergency Alert System (EAS): Lessons Learned from the Nationwide EAS Test,” was issued by the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau and focuses specifically on the first nationwide test of EAS, which occurred on November 9, 2011. The GAO Report, “Emergency Alerting: Capabilities Have Improved, but Additional Guidance and Testing Are Needed,” more generally examines the effectiveness of EAS. Both reports find shortcomings and recommend actions that the FCC, in coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), should take. Additionally, the FCC notes that many EAS participants failed to file reports that were required in connection with the November 9, 2011, nationwide test, and indicates that it will refer those matters to the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau for consideration.
The FCC Report first summarizes the results of the first nationwide EAS test. Although “a large majority of the EAS Participants received the Emergency Action Notification (EAN)” and retransmitted it to other participants,” the test “uncovered several problems,” including the following:
- Poor audio quality.
- The inability of some participants to receive or retransmit the EAN.
- The short length of the test.
- Anomalies in EAS equipment programming and operation.
Of the 13,787 broadcasters who submitted EAS test reports in connection with the nationwide test, 11,501 – or 83% – reported successful receipt of the EAN. But, as of November 9, 2011, FCC records show that there were 16,647 full-power AM, FM, and TV stations in existence, so there could be many more stations that did not receive the EAN or retransmit it. Noting that it had attempted to reach out to non-filers to encourage them to submit their filings before the FCC Report was issued, the Bureau indicated that it would “confirm cases of continued non-filers and refer them to the Enforcement Bureau for possible further action.”
To address these problems and the others identified by the test, the FCC Report recommends that another nationwide EAS test be conducted, but not until after the FCC takes a number of steps to strengthen the EAS. Those additional steps include:
- Commencing a rulemaking to examine equipment performance issues during activation of an EAN and seek comment on proposed changes, if any, to the EAS equipment rules to ensure that EAS equipment operates in a consistent fashion throughout the EAS architecture.
- Issuance of a Public Notice encouraging states to review and as necessary update their EAS plans to ensure that they contain accurate and up-to-date information regarding monitoring assignments as required by FCC rules.
- Commencing a rulemaking proceeding to consider possible changes to its EAS plan rules.
- Working with FEMA to develop and issue best practices and other educational materials for EAS Participants, and, also with FEMA, consider hosting a workshop or other public forum that could provide opportunities to educate EAS Participants about EAS performance and address concerns and questions EAS Participants may have about EAN operations.
On the issue of nationwide EAS testing, the FCC Report recommends the following actions:
- Commencing a rulemaking proceeding to address nationwide EAS test issues left open in previous EAS orders.
- Developing a new Nationwide EAS Test Reporting System database to improve electronic filing of test result data by EAS participants.
- Encouraging the Executive Office of the President to reconvene the Federal EAS Test Working Group.
The GAO Report concludes that although EAS has improved since it last studied the issue in a 2009 Report, additional efforts by the FCC, FEMA, and NOAA are needed. Specifically, the GAO Report notes, as did the FCC Report, that “the results of the nationwide EAS test—which a number of EAS participants could not effectively receive or transmit—show that the reliability of the traditional EAS system remains questionable.” In addition, GAO found that some state EAS plans are outdated, “in part, because state emergency communications committees are waiting for more guidance from [the] FCC, including changes in rules governing EAS.” Accordingly, GAO recommends that the FCC provide additional guidance to the states. GAO indicates, further, that although the FCC and FEMA had taken “limited steps to address problems identified by EAS participants,” there is more to be done. In particular, GAO recommends “ongoing, regular nationwide testing,” because otherwise “there is no assurance the EAS would work should the President need to activate it to communicate it to the American people.”
Taken together, the FCC Report and the GAO Report identify problems with the EAS, and, with both agencies agreeing that additional nationwide tests are needed, we can be virtually certain that we will see another scheduled in the future. Just when it will occur, however, is uncertain, particularly given the many steps that the FCC Report recommends completing in advance of another test. In the meantime, broadcasters and other EAS participants that did not file the reports required for the first nationwide EAS test should not be surprised if they receive inquiries about their non-filing from the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau.