When the FCC levied a fine against KWVE for bungling a required monthly EAS test, I was surprised at the outcry from broadcasters. My surprise was not the opposition itself, but rather the number of complaints that were expressed. One of the strongest arguments was jointly filed by all the state broadcast associations who expressed their displeasure over the fine.
To recap, KWVE, a local primary station in Orange County, CA, transmitted an EAS test on Oct. 19, 2008. The test was supposed to be a required weekly test, but the station operator accidently started a required monthly test. Realizing his mistake, the operator aborted the test, but failed to transmit the end-of-message tones. When the KWVE operator resumed programming, downline stations carried commercial programming from KWVE.
In August 2009, the FCC issued a letter of inquiry on the matter because of a complaint. That's when everything started. KWVE admitted to the error in its reply to the FCC, but also noted that the error was not willful and that station operators had been trained so another error would not occur. Despite this, the FCC levied a $5,000 fine.
Following the industry outcry, the FCC has re-evaluated its action and has dismissed the fine, but has admonished the station for the mistake. Naturally, the station is protesting even the admonishment.
This situation has brought EAS to the forefront yet again. EAS is not a perfect system. Its intent — to use the airwaves to alert the public of a pending or current emergency — is valid. As we all know, the system is only as good as the operational area plans and the entities that can activate alerts.
This was a test of the system, and the test failed. The error was innocent. As many of the letters to the FCC said, the fine will not serve to teach broadcasters a lesson, but rather make broadcasters want to have nothing to do with EAS. With no station volunteers to serve as the local primary, the system in its current design breaks. I was even told by one EAS area chairman that he was told by an FCC field inspector that if no station will volunteer to be the LP, the field inspector will find a way to assign it to a station. No one wants that.
I like the concepts behind EAS. Alerting the public as quickly as possible is important when a crisis is pending. The reality is that EAS does not really work as well as it was intended. In many cases, the local news media and even social networks do a better job of getting the word out. Many operational plans are still designed around former EBS plans.
A further complication to EAS is that other consumer devices do not carry the same alerts. No existing common consumer devices (radios, TVs, cell phones) will turn on if an alert is transmitted. There are some efforts to rectify that, but without a federal mandate it will take a long time before it's a reality.
Meanwhile, the work continues on enhancing emergency alerting with the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), and private efforts are being pushed such as Alert FM. Again, these are all good ideas, but we're not really solving the problem. Unfortunately, it takes a disaster such as 9/11, Katrina or a tsunami to remind us that there are shortcomings.
I don't believe any broadcast station should ever, as part of a standard plan, originate an alert. In case of some unusual circumstance broadcasters could originate an alert, but that is a delicate situation in itself.
Despite all this, the only people I ever hear talking about EAS are the engineers. I rarely if ever hear managers or owners discuss EAS, yet they are the ones who have the authority to actually do something about it. The engineers should implement it, not be the chief designers.
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