FCC Seeks to Improve Reliability of Emergency Alerts

The FCC adopted a report and order and further notice of proposed rulemaking today to improve the reliability of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and wireless emergency alerts (WEAs) in the wake of a false ballistic missile alert in Hawaii in January (TR Daily, Jan. 16).

“In a Report and Order adopted today, the Commission set forth procedures for authorized state and local officials to conduct ‘live code’ tests of the Emergency Alert System, which use the same alert codes and processes as would be used in actual emergencies.  These tests can increase the proficiency of local alerting officials while educating the public about how to respond to actual alerts.  The procedures adopted by the Commission require appropriate coordination, planning, and disclaimers to accompany any such test,” said a news release on the item, which was adopted in PS dockets 15-94 and 15-91.

“To further enhance public awareness, today’s action will also permit authorized Public Service Announcements (PSAs) about the Emergency Alert System to include the system’s Attention Signal (the attention-grabbing two-tone audio signal that precedes the alert message) and simulated Header Code tones (the three audible tones that precede the Attention Signal) so long as an appropriate disclaimer is included in the PSA,” the news release added. “Today’s action also requires Emergency Alert System equipment to be configured in a manner that can help prevent false alerts and requires an Emergency Alert System participant, such as a broadcaster or cable system, to inform the Commission if it discovers that it has transmitted a false alert.  In addition, in an accompanying Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the Commission seeks comment on other specific measures to help stakeholders prevent and correct false alerts.  The Commission also seeks comment on the performance of Wireless Emergency Alerts, including how such performance should be measured and whether, and if so how, the Commission should address inconsistent delivery of these messages.”

“Today, we seek to improve emergency preparedness, facilitate better testing, and reduce the frequency of false alerts by making changes to our Emergency Alert System (EAS) rules,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said. “First, we amend our rules to recognize ‘Live Code Tests’ as a separate category of alert exercise.  This will enable alert originators to simulate an end-to-end test of the EAS.  Live code testing can help identify gaps in training, assess the readiness of equipment, and ensure that alerts reach intended audiences.  And to minimize public confusion and alert fatigue, we require that jurisdictions limit their tests to two per year and that each live code test explicitly state that the event is a test by text crawl and/or audio, as technically feasible.

“Second, we amend our rules to allow EAS participants to include the two-tone Attention Signal in EAS public service announcements (PSAs).  We also permit the use of a simulation of the Header Code tones — the familiar three audible tones that precede the Attention Signal.  If used properly, PSAs can help raise public awareness and emergency preparedness.  Therefore, the PSA must explain that the Attention Signal and/or simulated Header Code is only being used in the context of a PSA to familiarize and educate the public about emergency alerting,” Mr. Pai added. “Third, we require EAS participants to reconfigure their equipment to reject alerts that contain invalid digital signatures and alerts whose expiration time falls outside of an alert’s specified time limits.  This should reduce the frequency of false alerts reaching the American people. Fourth, based on a report issued by the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau on Hawaii’s false missile alert earlier this year, we require any EAS participant to notify the FCC’s Operations Center no later than 24 hours after having actual knowledge that it has transmitted or otherwise sent a false alert to the public.  We believe such notifications will help inform the FCC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency as we aim to identify and solve problems with the EAS.”

Mr. Pai added that “finally, in the Further Notice, we propose to require that State EAS Plans include procedures to help prevent false alerts and to swiftly mitigate their consequences should one occur.  We also seek comment on whether we should do more to improve reporting on false alerts and a situation known as ‘lockouts,’ when multiple cable set-top boxes cannot return to normal operation after an EAS alert or test; whether we should take more steps to protect against false alerts at the state level; and how we can measure the accuracy and reliability of Wireless Emergency Alerts, or WEA[s], through technical criteria, performance standards, or public feedback.”

Commissioner Mike O’Rielly approved in part and dissented in part, while the other Commissioners approved the item.

“Generally, I can support the item’s authorization of conducting live code tests to ensure that the system works. At the same time, however, the code should be used sparingly so that people take it seriously when there is an actual emergency,” Mr. O’Rielly said. “I am pleased that today’s item incorporates my suggestion to limit the number of live code tests. An alert originator may conduct no more than two per year, and the item states that it is the Commission’s intention that a particular area should not receive any more than two live code tests per year. Such limitations should ensure that people do not disregard these alerts. If people come to expect that when those alert signals go off they may not be real, there is a very high likelihood that they will ignore potentially life-saving information.

“For this reason and others, I oppose using simulated EAS tones for public service announcements (PSAs). It is one thing to test the system, albeit infrequently, but it is quite another to allow these sacrosanct tones to be used for PSAs,” the Commissioner added. “Americans should not fear that they are in imminent danger just to realize it’s an announcement intended to inform them that the loud, screeching sound is what they will hear if truly in harm’s way. Talk about creating an environment where people are likely to grow to ignore real warnings. We’ve been told that this will only codify waivers we have been giving for years to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to conduct such PSAs. But, somehow after years and years, we need to give blanket authority to do PSAs without any limitations? I dissented to the adoption of similar rules for Wireless Emergency Alerts in 2016 and still disagree with its inclusion today. Therefore, I dissent to this one portion of the item.”

Mr. O’Rielly also said that he is “generally concerned that we are overstepping our bounds into territory provided to DHS and FEMA. Today’s order now adopts new mandates that require communications providers that have actual knowledge that a false EAS alert was issued to contact the FCC Operations Center. But, the near-catastrophic mistake in Hawaii was the fault of a delusional individual, who still thought he did the right thing days later and was eventually terminated from employment. That incident does not justify new burdens on the private sector that did nothing wrong. At least my suggestion that the standard be based on actual knowledge was accepted. But, private sector entities that pass through these messages should not bear the burden or responsibility of having to determine whether a message they did not originate is, in fact, accurate and report to the Commission if it is not. Similarly, the notice portion of the item contains a proposal requiring states and localities to add information about their procedures to prevent and mitigate false alerts in their State EAS Plans and seeks comment on what procedures should be detailed in these descriptions.” He added that in “the IPAWS Modernization Act of 2015, Congress specifically gave FEMA the authority to “modernize” the integrated public alert and warning system ‘to disseminate timely and effective warnings regarding natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and other man-made disasters or threats to public safety.’”

But Mr. O’Rielly thanked Mr. Pai “for incorporating some of my edits as discussed above and others, such as acknowledging that cable operators passing through a live code test using the old broadcast daisy chain only have the technical ability to add ‘this is a test’ to the audio message and not to the text crawl. Cable operators should not be required to do something that a legacy system cannot do, so by adding that this requirement applies only if ‘technically feasible’ is justified, as the remaining entities migrate to IPAWs.”

“Many organizations have created such [alerting] PSAs. But our rules currently prevent alert tones from being used in PSAs given our concern about alert fatigue and commercial actors potentially misusing signals to get the attention of consumers’ eyes or ears,” Commissioner Brendan Carr noted. “Over the past few years, we’ve dealt with the tension between our rule and the need for educational PSAs by issuing a string of condition-laden waivers to select groups. Given our experience under these waivers, I am glad that we are now codifying our process for the use of alert tones in these PSAs. And we do so in a way that allows the entities with substantial expertise on emergency alerts, such as FEMA and local emergency management agencies, to determine their appropriate use.”

Mr. Carr continued, “We all know that false alerts can shake Americans’ confidence in the emergency alert system. And after what happened in Hawaii a few months ago, we’ve seen the panic and harm that a false alert can cause. So I want to thank my colleagues for agreeing to two changes to today’s decision that will help us act on some lessons learned. First, we are now moving straight to a rule that requires EAS participants to inform the FCC when they know they’ve transmitted a false alert, rather than seeking comment on the idea for a second time. Second, in the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau’s report on the Hawaii false alert, agency staff recommended that states develop standard operating procedures for responding to false alerts. So I am glad that my colleagues have agreed to propose implementing this recommendation through our review of state EAS plans, rather than only seeking comment on doing so.”

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel noted that she has suggested “that we set up a system for reporting false alerts, so we can learn from our errors going forward” and “that we use the filing of State Emergency Alert System plans at this agency to promote best practices and help halt the problems that we saw in Hawaii.  Today, I am pleased to see the Federal Communications Commission has taken up these ideas by ensuring that Emergency Alert System participants report false alerts in this order and seeking comment on how to revise state plans in order to prevent future false alerts.  I sincerely hope we can conclude this rulemaking before we reach the one-year anniversary of the events in Hawaii.  In the order before us, we also adopt a policy to support live testing of the Emergency Alert System under specific conditions in order to improve training and public understanding.  In sum, today’s effort is good for public safety communications nationwide and it has my full support.”

“I thank Chairman Pai and the FCC for taking additional steps today to fix our wireless and broadcast emergency alert systems by requiring relevant government agencies to report all false alarms,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii), ranking member of the Senate communications, technology, innovation, and the Internet subcommittee. “In particular, I cannot understate the importance of Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel’s participation during our hearing in Honolulu and leadership to make sure the discussion at the hearing resulted in real action at the FCC.”

“Independent cable operators play an important role in delivering EAS alerts. Ensuring smaller operators have sufficient notice of live code EAS tests gives them an opportunity to plan and to participate effectively, allowing the benefits of these tests to be shared as broadly as possible,” said American Cable Association President and Chief Executive officer Matthew Polka said. “ACA thanks the FCC for taking steps in this Order to make these tests more inclusive of all EAS participants, including smaller cable operators.” —Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDAily