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Despite No National EAS Test, Emergency Info Obligations Remain

- Timely Guidance as Hurricane Season Advances

Earlier this summer, TAB advised stations that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced there will not be a 2020 national Emergency Alert System (EAS) test.

FEMA said it opted not to pursue a national test this year “out of consideration for the unusual circumstances and working conditions for those in the broadcast and cable industry.”

It also noted that while “systems remain in place for rapid automatic transmission of the test message by broadcast and cable operators, the follow-on reporting activities associated with a national test place additional burdens on technical staff that are already quite busy maintaining as close to normal operation as possible.”

The agency said it would move forward with a national test of EAS in 2021.

This year’s move by FEMA has meant broadcasters have not been scurrying this month to update their station information in the FCC’s ETRS by a specific August deadline.

But that doesn’t mean the FCC isn’t mindful of broadcasters’ obligations as they relate to dissemination of emergency communications.

Texas broadcasters should note that the scheduled Required Monthly Tests and Required Weekly Tests of EAS will continue as planned for the rest of 2020.

Broadcast Television Requirements

In what has become an annual event for this time of year, the height of the hurricane season, the FCC last week released a Public Notice reminding television broadcasters of the FCC requirement to make emergency information accessible to all portions of the audience, especially those who cannot see or hear it.

Attorney David Oxenford with TAB Associate member law firm Wilkinson Barker Knauer, said this year’s version comes “with a couple of new wrinkles.”

For example, said Oxenford, the notice typically provides examples of the types emergencies the rules are meant to cover, such as “tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, tidal waves, earthquakes, icing conditions, heavy snows, widespread fires, discharge of toxic gases, widespread power failures, industrial explosions, civil disorders, school closings and changes in school bus schedules resulting from such conditions, and warnings and watches of impending changes in weather.” 

What’s new for this year’s list?  Pandemics.

Oxenford said broadcasters should be mindful that the obligations “are intended to cover not just the area where the emergency is occurring, but also in adjacent areas that may be affected by the effects of the emergency – and the obligations extend not just to the immediate time of the emergency but also to information about dealing with its aftermath.”

There are specific obligations to accommodate the blind or visually impaired, and those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Television stations must “present any visual information about emergency conditions in an aural manner as well.  If information is presented outside a newscast in, for instance, a crawl on the bottom of the screen during an entertainment program, that crawl must be preceded by aural tones alerting the audience that they can tune to a secondary audio stream provided by the TV station giving the same information as conveyed by the crawl,” he added.

Oxenford has written about this obligation in articles at his blog.   

In fast-breaking situations, Oxenford said stations have relayed emergency information for those who are deaf or hard of hearing through open captions.

Sometimes it has even taken the form of hand-written whiteboards on the air.

Oxenford said the FCC’s public notice also suggests that any emergency information be provided in ways that those with any sort of cognitive impairment be able to understand what is being conveyed.

TAB encourages Texas televisions stations to read this year’s notice to be sure all a that TV station’s FCC emergency communication obligations are being met. 

Questions? Contact TAB’s Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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