WASHINGTON, D.C. -- There has never been a nationwide activation of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) or its predecessors, but that's going to change. Citing a desire to "determine the reliability of the EAS system and its effectiveness in notifying the public of emergencies and potential danger nationwide and regionally," the Commission has announced plans to activate a Presidential Alert, to be carried by all EAS-participating agencies nationwide.
In a press release (PDF) issued Thursday, the FCC says "the date for the National EAS test has yet to be determined," but "establishing the rules is an important first step in the process." The Commission notes that it wants to be sure that current and "Next Generation" EAS systems are compatible with other emergency notification systems like FEMA's "IPAWS" network, and a "Commercial Mobile Alert System" which will reach owners of "smart-phones, blackberries [sic] and other mobile broadband devices."
Before the test happens, a public awareness campaign will be launched to make sure the public is aware that this Presidential Alert is simply a test. It will also remind people of "the benefits of these kinds of public alerts in a real emergency."
In the FCC's "Third Report and Order" on the topic of a nationwide EAS test (PDF), the Commission explains that Part 11 of EAS regulations "require EAS Participants to conduct weekly and monthly tests at the state and local level." But the order goes on to point out that "Part 11 does not contain rules that specifically authorize testing of EAS at the national level, or establish procedures for such a test. We believe that this is a serious gap."
This is because the EAS system relies on government sources to originate messages, then on individual broadcasters to relay the message over-the-air. Through a "daisy chain" process, other stations pick up the alert signal, and it is repeated until, theoretically, every EAS participating station in the affected area is carrying the alert. But the FCC acknowledges that a problem at any single point in the process could potentially end the chain, leaving people "in the dark" in a real emergency.
Although the original rules mentioned there could be "periodic national tests," the rules were vague, failing to mention exactly how often such testing would take place, or which entity would be responsible for initiating the tests.
The Report & Order also mentions that the documentation stations must record regarding their EAS testing is "limited in scope." Stations are required to keep records of their EAS testing and results, but stations "are not required to supply these data to the Commission. Further, data required are not sufficient to allow the Commission to determine whether the EAS is capable of functioning nationally." Essentially, if there were a national-scale test today, the FCC wouldn't necessarily have any way to effectively and quickly determine where the test was a success, and where it failed.
As a result of the above and some other factors, the FCC said it will revise the rules in preparation of a national-scale EAS test. Among the highlights:
The FCC says some broadcasters raised concerns certain stations may drop EAS participation, or may "fudge" their test results in order to avoid fines in the result of a test failure. These commenters asked the FCC to consider waiving fines for any EAS-related violations which occur during the national test. The FCC said that is recognizes that the public benefit of finding and resolving any problems is highly important, maybe moreso than penalizing parties that may be responsible for glitches in the system. But the FCC stopped short of saying it would waive fines, noting that current regulations already provide room for "discretion" in evaluating the severity of a violation.
In many past cases, the FCC has been known to reduce or eliminate EAS-related fines if a station can show that it otherwise has a spotless record, or that the problems were NOT a result of station negligence or other avoidable problems.