FCC Adopts Rules Making Emergency Alert System Communications More Accessible and Less Confusing to Consumers

On September 29, 2022, the Federal Communications Commission (the “FCC” or “Commission”) approved a Report and Order (the “Order”) adopting new rules that will improve the clarity and accessibility of emergency alert messages delivered using the Emergency Alert System (EAS) for all Americans and, in particular, people with disabilities. The new rules require all EAS participants, including TV networks, TV providers, and radio stations to transmit EAS announcements in the Internet-based Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) format instead of the legacy EAS format whenever emergency messages are available in CAP format, because CAP communications can convey more information than legacy EAS communications. EAS participants must also update the language used in connection with national emergency alerts so that the text displayed to the public in the event of such alert labels it as a “National Emergency Message” and the alert originator as the “United States Government,” change the message sent to the public during national EAS tests so that it announces a “Nationwide Test of the Emergency Alert System” rather than a “National Periodic Test,” and change the visual script displayed to the public when a national EAS test alert is sent in the legacy format to provide additional information about who is sending the test alert and to emphasize that it is only a test rather an actual emergency alert. To implement these changes, EAS participants must update their software and equipment as needed to comply with the new requirements.

EAS participants must comply with the new rules within one year of the effective date of the final Order, with a narrow exception for cable operators who need additional time (up to six years) to complete the transition to the new EAN text display of “National Emergency Message” to the extent that the change requires replacement of downstream equipment that cannot be safely updated via software.

EAS Background

The EAS is a national system that disseminates public warnings of imminent emergencies over broadcast, cable, satellite, and telco networks to consumers’ radios, TVs, and other audio and video devices, such as smartphones, tablets, and computers. TV and radio broadcasters, cable systems, satellite service providers, and wireline video providers are all required to transmit certain alerts from the President of the United States and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as well as nationwide EAS test messages. EAS participants also voluntarily pass through other types of alerts, such as National Weather Service warnings and AMBER alerts regarding wildfires, nuclear accidents, child abductions, and other dangerous phenomena.

Under the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) and the Commission’s implementing regulations, EAS messages must be made accessible to consumers with communication disabilities. Specifically, EAS alerts must be available audibly to the blind and visually impaired, and visually to the deaf and hard of hearing.

CAP EAS Polling and Prioritization

Current FCC rules allow EAS to transmit emergency alerts in legacy or CAP EAS format when both options are available. As a result, EAS participants often transmit the version of an alert they receive first. Due to the inherent technical limitations of legacy-formatted communications, however, the new rules will require EAS participants to prioritize CAP-formatted alerts over their legacy-formatted counterparts as follows:

  • Whenever an EAS participant receives both a legacy and a CAP version of the same emergency alert, the EAS participant must transmit the CAP version.
  • If an EAS participant receives a legacy-formatted emergency alert only, the EAS participant must check if a CAP version of the same alert is available by polling the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) feed for CAP-formatted messages no earlier than ten (10) seconds after detecting the legacy alert’s initial header code. If the IPAWS query returns a CAP-formatted version, then the EAS provider must transmit the CAP version. Otherwise, the legacy version may be transmitted.

The above CAP polling and prioritization requirements do not apply to alerts with the Emergency Alert Notification (EAN), National Periodic Test (NPT), or Required Weekly Test (RWT) event codes.

We expect CAP prioritization of emergency alerts to significantly improve equal access to EAS alerts for people with disabilities. Since legacy-formatted alerts are technically capable of relaying only an audio message and a limited amount of encoded data, the text of the visual alert that appears on-screen does not always match the text of the same audio alert. As a result of this imbalance, deaf consumers who rely on the visual representation of the alert sometimes receive less information about the emergency and response recommendations than blind people who rely on the alert audio, leaving deaf consumers at a disadvantage over blind consumers. CAP polling and prioritization, if implemented successfully, should eliminate this inequality.

Technical Changes Designed to Eliminate Consumer Confusion

  • The FCC revised the prescribed audible and visual text associated with two event codes and one originator code as follows:
    • The text of the EAN event code is changed from “Emergency Action Notification” to “National Emergency Message.”
    • The text for the NPT event code is changed from “National Periodic Test” to “Nationwide Test of the Emergency Alert System.”
    • The text for the PEP originator code is changed from “Primary Entry Code System” to “United States Government.”
  • The FCC deleted the NIC code because the federal National Information Center no longer exists.

The CommLaw Group Can Help!

If you have any questions about the scope of your company’s obligations to make emergency alerts accessible to people with disabilities, please contact Michal J. Nowicki, Esq. at (703) 714-1311 or mjn@commlawgroup.com. Mr. Nowicki has been advocating for video accessibility even before joining the CommLaw Group, working closely with Comcast and DirecTV to ensure they pass through the audio description to blind subscribers. For questions about the EAS generally, please contact Jonathan S. Marashlian, Esq. at jsm@commlawgroup.com, or the attorney assigned to your account.

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