On Thursday, the FCC issued an advisory to remind Emergency Alert System (EAS) participants of their compliance obligations to get special alerts into the hands of their users, including ensuring that alerts are accessible to people with disabilities.
The EAS is a national public warning system that enables the President to communicate via live audio transmission to the public during a national emergency. According to the FCC, “EAS Participants must transmit Presidential messages during national emergencies and may transmit local messages, such as severe weather alerts and AMBER alerts. AMBER is short for “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.”
The FCC issued their Enforcement Advisory to remind broadcasters, cable television operators, wireless cable operators, wireline video service providers, satellite digital audio radio service providers, and direct broadcast satellite providers of their obligation to comply with the EAS rules.
The Integrated Public Alert Warning System Modernization Act of 2015 requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to conduct a national level EAS test at least once every three years. The last test occurred in August 2019.
In the fall of 2018, President Trump also tested the Emergency Presidential Alert system. Congress authorized the public safety alert system in 2008. It began operating in 2012 and has been used regionally; the 2018 test was the first time the alert was used nationwide, including Hawaii and Alaska.
Unlike other alerts that you can opt-out of, the law requires that you get this alert if your phone is capable of receiving them. FEMA says while phone users can opt out of the alerts for “imminent threats” and AMBER alerts about abducted children, presidential messages cannot be disabled.
When President Trump tested the Emergency Presidential Alert system, FEMA also used that time to test the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system. Two minutes prior to the presidential alert, sent a nationwide WEA test; it was the EAS nationwide test and the first national WEA test. Previous EAS national tests were conducted in November 2011, September 2016, and September 2017 in collaboration with the FCC, broadcasters, and emergency management officials in recognition of FEMA’s National Preparedness Month.
WEA alerts are often used for weather emergencies. In December 2019, steps were taken to reduce false alarms received by some during flash flood episodes.
The FCC takes these emergency alerts seriously. In 2019, the FCC fined the ABC Television Network for a sketch produced by Jimmy Kimmel for his late night show that mocked a Presidential Emergency Alert called “Fake News”. That fine cost the network $395,000. AMC and Discovery networks were also found to be mis-using emergency alert tones that should only be used in an emergency; AMC was fined $104,000 while Discovery was fined $68,000.