Emergency Alert System – New Rules and Many Changes By Gregg P. Skall

The security of the nation’s alert and warning systems is essential to helping safeguard the lives and property of all Americans.  On September 29, 2022 the FCC adopted a Report and Order revising its rules regarding the emergency alert system to update and modernize the system and the messages it sends and to allow increased information about all of the EAS warnings that are provided through the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) version of its messages. Broadcasters are required to comply with the new rules by December 12, 2023.

As noted below, this will likely involve software upgrades, and in some instances equipment upgrades, to EAS equipment.  Broadcasters should familiarize themselves with the new rules to ensure their equipment will be able to comply with the new rules in a timely fashion.

The Emergency Alert System is comprised of both a legacy system and an Internet-based system.  Beginning December 12, 2023, the new rules require broadcasters and other Emergency Alert System (EAS) participants to transmit the Internet-based version of alerts when available, rather than the legacy version of alerts.  The increased use of Internet-based alerts, in CAP format, will produce higher-quality audio messages, improve the availability of multilingual alerts, and ensure that more of the alerts displayed on television screens contain all the information provided by the government.

CAP-formatted alerts disseminated over the IPAWS platform convey considerably more information. CAP alert messages utilize enhanced text which enables them to send more detailed directions for public action in response to the specific emergency, information in languages other than English, picture and video files, and URLs that members of the public can visit to obtain additional textual, streaming audio, or video information.  This additional information is lost when CAP alerts are converted into legacy alerts over the legacy EAS, as only the header codes are relayed.

Under the new rules:

  1. EAS participants receiving an EAS alert in the legacy format must check whether a CAP version of the alert is available. If it is, they must send the CAP version rather than the legacy version.
  2. All outmoded language used in connection with national emergency must now be changed so that the text displayed to the public in the event of such an alert labels it as a “National Emergency Message” and the alert originator as the “United States Government.”
  3. The message sent to the public during national EAS tests must now state it is a “Nationwide Test of the Emergency Alert System” rather than the former message “National Periodic Test.”
  4. The visual script displayed to the public when a national EAS test alert is sent in the legacy format must now be include additional information about who is sending the test alert. It must also emphasize that it is only a test rather an actual emergency alert.
  5. EAS participants are required to update their equipment to implement all of the required changes

Among other things, these rules will improve service for people who are deaf or hard of hearing by providing alerts in a viewable format that more closely matches the audible versions of these alert messages on television.  In addition, people who are blind or visually impaired will have access on their radios to national alerts containing more detailed audio information.

CAP Version Polling:

Beginning December 12, 2023, upon receiving a legacy EAS alert message, all EAS participants will be required to poll IPAWS to check whether a CAP version of the same alert is available. When a legacy-format alert that (i) is valid, (ii) covers a type of event and a geographic area for which the EAS Participant normally transmits alerts pursuant to its State EAS Plan, except for EAN, NPT, or RWT event codes, and (iii) is not a duplicate of a CAP-formatted message, the EAS Participant must poll the IPAWS feed for a CAP version of the legacy alert at least 10 seconds after detection of the legacy alert initial header code.   If a CAP version is available, it must be transmitted rather than the legacy version of the alert.

Further, to allow sufficient time for a CAP version to appear without unduly delaying transmission of the alert, an alert in legacy format may not be transmitted until at least 10 seconds after receiving its header codes unless polling the IPAWS feed confirms that no matching CAP version of the message is available.  The 10 second delay corrects for the fact that legacy and CAP alerts are received at different times, and EAS devices often process whichever version of the alert they receive first. The delay allows the EAS participant the leeway to determine whether a CAP alert is also sent.  This will not unduly delay notification of the emergency as most EAS devices require at least 15 seconds to process and transmit a legacy alert after its header code is first detected.

There are two special circumstances related to the CAP polling:

  1. Participants may wait longer than 10 seconds to poll for CAP messages if individual circumstances or usual polling cycle so warrants.
  2. If a CAP alert message concerning a time-sensitive emergency is detected but it is taking an unreasonably long time to finish downloading the full content of the message from the IPAWS server due to factors such as IP transport latency, the EAS Participant may proceed to immediately transmit the received legacy version of the same alert.

In other words, The CAP prioritization mandate only sets the earliest time at which polling could occur.  Based on their familiarity with their IP transport links and other factors, EAS Participants adopt a longer CAP polling interval if that works best for their systems.

CAP Mandate Exceptions

CAP mandated polling and prioritization applies to all EAS alert categories except for the following specific event codes.

  1. EAN: National Emergency Messages using the EAN code (e., Presidential alerts) are excluded from the CAP Polling requirement. A Presidential national emergency alert would contain live audio which IPAWS cannot reliably carry live in CAP format in real-time and the ECIG Implementation Guide lacks the technical guidelines to support such live transmission.
  2. NPT: CAP polling or prioritization would undermine the objectives of testing. In some cases, the test is intended to assess the capacity to disseminate a legacy nationwide EAN alert. Since CAP polling for an actual nationwide legacy EAN alert is not required, there is no reason to require it for a test of the system. Similarly, where FEMA uses the NPT code to conduct a nationwide test of EAS in both legacy and CAP formats to compare the relative speed and propagation patterns for each format, it would invalidate the test to require CAP polling and substitution.
  3. RWT: Since RWT messages typically consist solely of tones, contain no audio or visual messages, and are used merely to ensure that the EAS equipment is functioning, there is no appreciable benefit to requiring CAP However, RMT (Required Monthly Test) alerts contain audible and readable visible text for the general public, CAP polling and prioritization is required.  This is also relevant to radio as some digital radio broadcasters transmit visual alerts to digital radio receivers and CAP text-to-speech is typically superior in clarity to legacy format.

Revised Alert Codes

Audible alert and viewable messages generated from three national EAS alert codes: EAN (Emergency Action Notification), NPT (National Periodic Test), and PEP (Primary Entry Point) are revised to be more understandable. Also, a scripted visual message must be displayed when FEMA conducts nationwide tests of the alert system in legacy EAS-only format.

  1. The EAN event code text is changed from “Emergency Action Notification” to “National Emergency Message;
  2. The NPT event code is changed from “National Periodic Test” to “Nationwide Test of the Emergency Alert System;”
  3. The PEP originator code is changed from “Primary Entry Code System” to “United States Government.

These changes are intended to make the EAS more accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing and to make these national alerts easier for all members of the public to understand more effectively the nature of the emergency situation.

Standard Script for Nationwide Test Alerts in Legacy EAS Format

When a PEP or NPT header coded message using the “All-U.S.” geographic location code is received by a video service EAS Participant, the following scripted text must be displayed:

This is a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System, issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, covering the United States from [time] until [time]. This is only a test. No action is required by the public.

Since this revised text will be displayed only when FEMA issues a nationwide test alert in legacy EAS format, it cannot use the enhanced text capabilities of CAP to explain the alert visually in greater detail.

Radio broadcasters must also change the text for the NPT event code from “National Periodic Test” to “Nationwide Test of the Emergency Alert System” since some digital radio receivers display visual alerts on their screens.  Such a change is important when CAP-format text messages do not include any audio content and the audio alerts are generated based on the CAP message header using text-to-speech functionality.  However, radio broadcasters are not required to update their devices to accommodate the new prescribed script for legacy-format NPT messages.  Radio is free to implement this updated script voluntarily, and encouraged to do so if it will improve digital radio visual displays, or for the sake of consistency across deployed EAS decoder devices.

Finally, Finally, to avoid potential confusion from associating the PEP originator code with the term “United States Government,” the term “Primary Entry Point System” in the FCC rules is changed to “National Public Warning System.”

Compliance Time Frame

All radio and television EAS Participants must comply with the new rules no later than December 12, 2023.  The Order recognizes that this will likely involve implementing software upgrades in EAS equipment to enable the equipment to display the revised texts and codes and conduct the IPAWS polling described above.  Broadcasters should ensure that they have installed any such software upgrades prior to December 12, 2023.

In some cases, broadcasters may be required to replace equipment that is too old to receive the software upgrade.  In order to be compliant with the EAS rules, such equipment replacements must be completed no later than December 12, 2023.

This column is provided for general information purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice pertaining to any specific factual situation. Legal decisions should be made only after proper consultation with a legal professional of your choosing.