The FCC is warning participants in the Emergency Alert System (EAS) to check their equipment to make sure it does not have a queued alert—scheduled for broadcast this weekend.  In one of two EAS-related Public Notices, the Commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau cautioned that an EAN alert that recently was transmitted as part of a syndicated radio program included a date/time stamp for a future date—reportedly November 9.  Rather than broadcasting the message when it was received, some EAS equipment may have stored the message for broadcast at a later date.  The Public Notice advised EAS Participants “to immediately check with their equipment manufacturers to determine if they have this alert in queue for a future date, and if so, what steps they should take to eliminate the false alert before it is transmitted.”

In part as a result of the recent event, the Bureau also is seeking comment from the EAS community about how EAS Participants receive and process EAS alerts and what impact the use of the EAS outside of an actual emergency has on public safety.  The inquiry asks about how different types of participants received and responded to “unauthorized EAS alerts”; how EAS Participants process EAS alerts (including confirming their authenticity and verifying the time of the alert); what additional actions can be taken to verify that the alerts relate to an actual emergency; and what impact unauthorized EAS alerts have on public safety answering points and members of the public.  The inquiry also asks about additional actions that can be taken to avoid or mitigate the effects of an unauthorized alert and how to better educate the public about the EAS.  Comments on this inquiry are due by December 5, 2014; replies are due by December 19, 2014.

In a second Public Notice, meanwhile, the Bureau is seeking comments regarding efforts to secure the EAS after EAS equipment was hacked to transmit false messages.  In February 2013, one or more parties gained access to several broadcasters’ EAS equipment and used that access to distribute a false alert about a “zombie invasion.”  In the Public Notice, the Bureau observes that “[t]he incident illustrates that at least some within the communications industry have not taken sufficient, or even basic, measures to thwart such attacks and ensure reliable delivery to the public of accurate public safety information.”

In June, the FCC’s Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council IV adopted voluntary communications security best practices.  The Bureau is seeking comment on those practices and recommendations and/or alternatives that stakeholders subsequently have developed.  Comments on this inquiry are due by December 30, 2014.

With these actions, it is clear that the FCC continues to focus on the reliability of the EAS in the wake of last year’s national EAS test and a series of recent enforcement actions.  Broadcasters should take this opportunity to revisit their practices with regard to EAS alerts and to ensure that their employees understand never to broadcast the EAS codes or Attention Signal or a simulation thereof outside of an actual emergency.

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