The next step in EAS

June 1, 2008

Chriss Scherer

Between terrorism and natural disasters, attention to public warning has never been greater. The term public warning means different things to different people, but you're hard pressed to meet anyone who does not support the general idea of having an effective way to reach the masses when a crisis occurs.

The FCC has an open rulemaking to update one aspect of public warning: the Emergency Alert System (EAS). The current EAS has been in use for more than 15 years, and by itself, it is an improvement over the EBS, but it still has shortcomings.

EAS from a government perspective was a way to transmit a message from the president to the public. States, regions and cities have adapted the system to fill other needs. Some have done it well. Some have not done it at all. The government has also not given its full support of EAS.

Now that the FCC has opened the topic for discussion, the SBE, NAB, National Alliance of State Broadcast Associations (NASBA) and FEMA are working to decide where to go to develop the next generation of EAS.

In May, the Homeland Security Emergency Communications, Preparedness and Response Subcommittee, of the House Committee on Homeland Security, held a hearing for an update on FEMA's progress on updating the public warning system. Also in May, the FCC held a summit to discuss the current state and future of EAS. Both events highlighted past and current shortcomings. Both presented ideas on the future of EAS. Neither has shown where EAS is really going.

One element that will be included in an EAS update is the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), as the FCC order mandates. Simply put, CAP provides a better way to encode data about an emergency for dissemination to the public. CAP can include images and more descriptive text to better inform recipients about a plan of action.

With all this said, I keep hearing that it's too soon to tell what the next generation of EAS will look like. In some ways, I understand that. There are lots of ideas being shared and solutions to current problems being proposed, but there are not yet any firm goals being presented to accomplish this improved EAS.

One important point to keep in mind is that EAS is part of public warning. EAS is not the only form of public warning. Broadcasters should focus on their own role in public warning and let others determine how the other aspects will function and interact. This is one area where I see progress being thwarted. The grand plan is good to keep in mind, but broadcasters must focus on their own piece of the project.

Many broadcast engineers seem to have taken personal ownership of EAS. This is ironic, because most broadcast licensees have not. Many licensees see EAS as a requirement. They understand their responsibility to the public, but they want to provide warnings with the minimum intrusion to their business operations. If the engineers push a system through without the licensees taking an interest, any proposed improvement will still be met with resistance.

For the owners, this hands-off approach will yield a system they don't like. Many engineers argue that because the engineer has to make it work in the end, the engineers should design the system. This automatically puts the engineering side against the owners and managers.

Not to oversimplify, but if the owners don't care, then why should the engineers?

With the NAB and NASBA involved, there is a conduit to the owners. I have not seen any activity from the owners through these groups yet. It is my hope that the NAB's and NASBA's efforts will be recognized and acted upon. This will result in an improved EAS, not just a replacement.

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