Emergency Alert System
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Emergency Alert System

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The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is a national warning system in the United States put into place on January 1, 1997 (approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in November 1994),[1] when it replaced the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), which in turn replaced CONELRAD. It is jointly coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The EAS regulations and standards are governed by the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau of the FCC.

As with its predecessors, the system is primarily designed to allow the president to address the country via all radio and television stations, in the event of a national emergency. Despite this, neither the system nor its predecessors have been used in this manner, due to the ubiquity of news coverage in these situations. In practice, it is more commonly used to distribute information regarding imminent threats to public safety, such as severe weather situations (including flash floods and tornadoes), AMBER Alerts of child abductions, and other civic emergencies.

Authorized organizations are able to disseminate and coordinate emergency alerts and warning messages through EAS. The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPWAS) is used as a backend to distribute alert information via EAS and related technologies such as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), using Common Alerting Protocol (CAP).[2] EAS messages are transmitted primarily via terrestrial and satellite radio and television (including broadcast and multichannel television), which are required to participate in the system.[3]

Technical concept

Messages in the EAS are composed of four parts: a digitally encoded Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) header, an attention signal, an audio announcement, and a digitally encoded end-of-message marker.

A Sage EAS ENDEC unit

The About this soundSAME header  is the most critical part of the EAS design. It contains information about who originated the alert (the president, state or local authorities, the National Weather Service (NOAA/NWS), or the broadcaster), a short, general description of the event (tornado, flood, severe thunderstorm), the areas affected (up to 32 counties or states), the expected duration of the event (in minutes), the date and time it was issued (in UTC), and an identification of the originating station (see SAME for a complete breakdown of the header).

There are 77 radio stations designated as National Primary Stations in the Primary Entry Point (PEP) System to distribute presidential messages to other broadcast stations and cable systems.[4]

The Emergency Action Notification is the notice to broadcasters that the president of the United States or their designee will deliver a message over the EAS via the PEP system.[5] The government has stated that the system would allow a president to speak during a national emergency within 10 minutes.[6][7]

Primary Entry Point stations

The National Public Warning System, also known as the Primary Entry Point (PEP) stations, are a network of 77 radio stations that are, in coordination with FEMA, used to originate emergency alert and warning information to the public before, during, and after incidents and disasters. PEP stations are equipped with additional and backup communications equipment and power generators designed to enable them to continue broadcasting information to the public during and after an event. Beginning with WJR/Detroit and WLW/Cincinnati in 2016, FEMA began the process of constructing transportable studio shelters at the transmitters of 33 PEP stations, which feature broadcasting equipment, emergency provisions, a rest area, and an air filtration system. NPWS project manager Manny Centeno explained that these shelters were designed to "[expand] the survivability of these stations to include an all hazards platform, which means chemical, biological, radiological air protection and protection from electromagnetic pulse."[8][9][10]

Communication links

The FEMA National Radio System (FNARS) "Provides Primary Entry Point service to the Emergency Alert System", and acts as an emergency presidential link into the EAS. The FNARS net control station is located at the Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center.[11]

Once an EAN is received by an EAS participant from a PEP station (or any other participant) the message then "daisy chains'" through the network of participants. "Daisy chains" form when one station receives a message from multiple other stations and the station then forwards that message to multiple other stations. This process creates many redundant paths through which the message may flow increasing the likelihood that the message will be received by all participants and adding to the survivability of the system.

Each EAS participant is required to monitor at least two other participants.

EAS header

Because the header lacks error detection codes, it is repeated 3 times for redundancy. However, the repetition of the data can itself be considered an error detection and correction code - like any error detection or correction code, it adds redundant information to the signal in order to make errors identifiable. EAS decoders compare the received headers against one another, looking for an exact match between any two, eliminating most errors which can cause an activation to fail. The decoder then decides whether to ignore the message or to relay it on the air if the message applies to the local area served by the station (following parameters set by the broadcaster).

The SAME header bursts are followed by an attention tone, which lasts between 8 and 25 seconds, depending on the originating station. The tone is About this sound1050 Hz  on a NOAA Weather Radio station. On commercial broadcast stations, a About this sound"two-tone"  attention signal of 853 Hz and 960 Hz sine waves is used instead, the same signal used by the older Emergency Broadcast System. These tones have become infamous, and can be considered both frightening and annoying by viewers; in fact, the two tones, which form approximately the interval of a just major second at an unusually high pitch, were chosen specifically for their ability to draw attention, due to their unpleasantness on the human ear. The SAME header is equally known for its shrillness, which many have found to be startling. The "two-tone" system is no longer required as of 1998, and is to be used only for audio alerts before EAS messages.[12][full ] Like the EBS, the attention signal is followed by a voice message describing the details of the alert.

The message ends with 3 bursts of the AFSK "EOM", or End of Message, which is the text NNNN, preceded each time by the binary 10101011 calibration.

IPAWS

A Gorman-Redlich rack mounted CAP-to-EAS converter which translates CAP formatted alerts into EAS headers

Under a 2006 executive order issued by George W. Bush, the U.S. government was instructed to create "an effective, reliable, integrated, flexible, and comprehensive" public warning system. This was accomplished via expansions to the aforementioned PEP network, and the development of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS)--a national aggregator and distributor of alert information using the XML-based Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) and an internet network. IPAWS can be used to distribute alert information to EAS participants, supported mobile phones (Wireless Emergency Alerts), and other platforms.[13]

Under an FCC report and order issued in 2007, EAS participants would be required to migrate to digital equipment supporting CAP within 180 days of the specification's adoption by FEMA. This officially occurred September 30, 2010, but the deadline was later delayed to June 30, 2012 at the request of broadcasters.[14]

As part of the implementation, the FCC mandated that visual displays of alerts be able to display any extended text contained within the associated CAP message, when possible. The FCC has established that IPAWS is not a full substitute for the existing SAME protocol, as it is vulnerable to situations that may make internet connectivity unavailable. Therefore, broadcasters must convert CAP messages to legacy SAME headers to enable backwards compatibility with the existing "daisy chain" method of EAS distribution, providing a backup distribution path.[14][15]

Station requirements

The FCC requires all broadcast stations and multichannel video programming distributors (MVPD) to install and maintain FCC-certified EAS decoders and encoders at their control points or headends. These decoders continuously monitor the signals from other nearby broadcast stations for EAS messages. For reliability, at least two source stations must be monitored, one of which must be a designated local primary. Stations are to retain the latest version of the EAS handbook.

Stations are required by federal law to keep logs of all received messages. Logs may be kept by hand but are usually kept automatically by a small receipt printer in the encoder/decoder unit. Logs may also be kept electronically inside the unit as long as there is access to an external printer or method to transfer them to a personal computer.

In addition to the audio messages transmitted by radio stations, "television broadcast stations shall transmit a visual message containing the Originator, Event, Location and the valid time period of an EAS message".[16] This may be a text "crawl" or a static visual message. A text "crawl" is displayed at the on-screen that contains all of the information encoded in the initial SAME header, as well as any extended text.that is contained within the associated CAP message.[14] A color-coded "crawl" system is often used where the color signifies the priority of the message. Some television stations transmit only a static slide containing the required information. A television station may be used for monitoring by another station and thus the audio is necessary.[12][full ]

Stations are required by federal law to relay Emergency Action Notification (EAN) messages immediately (47 CFR Part 11.54).[17] Stations traditionally have been allowed to opt out of relaying other alerts such as severe weather, and child abduction emergencies (AMBER Alerts) if they so choose (in practice, severe weather alerts are typically delegated to a station's local news department, and presented on-air with analysis by a staff meteorologist).[18]

System tests

All EAS equipment must be tested on a weekly basis. The required weekly test (RWT) consists, at a minimum, of the header and end-of-message tones. Though an RWT does not need an audio or graphic message announcing the test, many stations provide them as a courtesy to the public. In addition, television stations are not required to transmit a video message for weekly tests. RWTs are scheduled by the station on random days and times, (though quite often during late night or early afternoon hours), and are generally not relayed.[12][full ]

A Required Monthly Test (RMT) transmitted in New Jersey on April 15, 2014 as shown on a television set

Required monthly tests (RMTs) are generally originated by the local or state primary station, a state emergency management agency, or by the National Weather Service and are then relayed by broadcast stations and cable channels. RMTs must be performed between 8:30 a.m. and local sunset during odd numbered months, and between local sunset and 8:30 a.m. during even numbered months. Received monthly tests must be retransmitted within 60 minutes of receipt.[12][19] Additionally, an RMT should not be scheduled or conducted during an event of great importance such as a pre-announced presidential speech, coverage of a national/local election, major local or national news coverage outside regularly scheduled newscast hours or a major national sporting event such as the Super Bowl or World Series, with other events such as the Indianapolis 500 and Olympic Games mentioned in individual EAS state plans.

An RWT is not required during a calendar week in which an RMT is scheduled. No testing has to be done during a calendar week in which all parts of the EAS (header burst, attention signal, audio message, and end of message burst) have been legitimately activated.

In July 2018, in response to the aftermath of the false missile alert in Hawaii earlier in the year (which was caused by operator error during an internal drill protocol), the FCC announced that it would take steps to promote public awareness and improve efficiency of the system, including requiring safeguards to prevent distribution of false alarms, the ability to authorize "live code" tests--which would simulate the process and response to an actual emergency, and authorizations to use the EAS tones in public service announcements that promote awareness of the system.[20][21]

National periodic tests

On February 3, 2011, the FCC announced plans and procedures for national EAS tests, which involve all television and radio stations connected to the EAS, as well as all cable and satellite services in the United States. They are not relayed on the NOAA Weather Radio (NOAA/NWS) network as it is an initiation-only network and does not receive messages from the PEP network.[22][23] The national test would transmit and relay an Emergency Action Notification on November 9, 2011 at 2:00 p.m. EST.[24][25]

The FCC found that only half of participants received the message via IPAWS, and some "failed to receive or retransmit alerts due to erroneous equipment configuration, equipment readiness and upkeep issues, and confusion regarding EAS rules and technical requirements". and that participation among low-power broadcasters was low. To reduce viewer confusion, the FCC ruled that future national tests would be delivered under the new event code "national periodic test" (NPT), and use a location code specifying the "United States".[26][27] A second national test, now classified as an NPT, occurred on September 28, 2016 as part of National Preparedness Month.[28][29] A third national periodic test occurred on September 27, 2017.[30]

The fourth NPT occurred on October 3, 2018 (delayed from September 20, 2018 due to Hurricane Florence). It was preceded by the first mandatory wireless emergency alert test.[31][32][33] The fifth NPT occurred on August 7, 2019, moved up from past years to prevent it from occurring during the heart of the Atlantic hurricane season. The test focused exclusively on distribution to broadcast outlets and television providers via the primary entry point network, in order to gauge the efficiency of alert distribution in the event that the internet cannot be used.[34][35]

Additions and proposals

The number of event types in the national system has grown to eighty. At first, all but three of the events (civil emergency message, immediate evacuation, and emergency action notification [national emergency]) were weather-related (such as a tornado warning). Since then, several classes of non-weather emergencies have been added, including, in most states, the AMBER Alert System for child abduction emergencies. In 2016, three additional weather alert codes were authorized for use in relation to hurricane events, including Extreme Wind Warning (EWW), Storm Surge Warning (SSW) and Storm Surge Watch (SSA).

In 2004, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPR) seeking comment on whether EAS in its present form is the most effective mechanism for warning the American public of an emergency and, if not, on how EAS can be improved, such as mandatory text messages to cellphones, regardless of subscription. As noted above, rules implemented by the FCC on July 12, 2007 provisionally endorse incorporating CAP with the SAME protocol.

In 2018, Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz proposed the Reliable Emergency Alert Distribution Improvement (READI) Act; alongside proposing that FEMA create best practices for EAS usage and false alarms (the latter in response to the Hawaii false missile alert), it would have required that certain types of alerts receive repeat broadcasts in order to ensure that viewers receive the alert.[36][37][38][39]

EAS for consumers

The EAS is designed to be useful for the entire public, not just those with SAME-capable equipment. However, several consumer-level radios do exist, especially weather radio receivers, which are available to the public through both mail-order and retailers. Other specialty receivers for AM/FM/ACSSB (LM) are available only through mail-order, or in some places from federal, state, or local governments, especially where there is a potential hazard nearby such as a chemical factory. These radios come pre-tuned to a station in each area that has agreed to provide this service to local emergency management officials and agencies, often with a direct link back to the plant's safety system or control room for instant activation should an evacuation or other emergency arise.

The ability to narrow messages down so that only the actual area in danger is alerted is extremely helpful in preventing false warnings, which was previously a major tune-out factor. Instead of sounding for all warnings within a station's area, SAME-decoder radios now sound only for the counties for which they are programmed. When the alarm sounds, anyone with the radio knows that the danger is nearby and protective action should be taken. For this reason, the goal of the National Weather Service is that each home should have both a smoke detector and a SAME weather radio.

Limitations

The EAS can only be used to relay audio messages that preempt all programming; as the intent of an Emergency Action Notification is to serve as a "last-ditch effort to get a message out if the [p]resident cannot get to the media", it can easily be made redundant by the immediate and constant coverage that major weather events and other newsworthy situations--such as, most prominently, the September 11 attacks in 2001--receive from television broadcasters and news channels. Following the attacks, then-FCC chairman Michael K. Powell cited "the ubiquitous media environment" as justification for not using the EAS in their immediate aftermath. Glenn Collins of The New York Times acknowledged these limitations, noting that "no president has ever used the current [EAS] system or its technical predecessors in the last 50 years, despite the Soviet missile crisis, a presidential assassination, the Oklahoma City bombing, major earthquakes and three recent high-alert terrorist warnings", and that using it would have actually hindered the availability of live coverage from media outlets.[40][41]

Following the tornado outbreak of March 3, 2019, Birmingham, Alabama NWS meteorologist Kevin Laws told CNN that he, personally, wished that alerts could be updated in real-time in order to reflect the unpredictable nature of weather events -noting that the storm system's unexpected change in trajectory towards Lee County resulted in only a nine-minute warning (the resulting tornado would kill 23 people).[36]

The trend of cord cutting has led to concerns that viewers' lessened use of broadcast media in favor of streaming video services would inhibit their ability to receive emergency information (notwithstanding availability of alerts on mobile phones).[36][37]

Incidents

False alarms

On January 13, 2018, a false alarm was issued warning of a missile threat to Hawaii.
  • On February 1, 2005, the EAS was used to mistakenly issue an "immediate evacuation order for all of Connecticut", which contained no specific information on why it had been issued. The message was broadcast due to operator error while conducting an unannounced, but scheduled statewide test. A study conducted following the incident reported that at least 11% of residents actually saw the warning live, and that 63% of those surveyed were "a little or not at all concerned"--citing a suspicious lack of detail in the message, which a legitimate alert would include. Only 1% of those surveyed actually attempted to leave the state. Connecticut State Police did not receive any calls related to the incident.[42][43][44]
  • On June 26, 2007 at 7:35 a.m. CDT, an Emergency Action Notification was accidentally issued in the state of Illinois, when a new satellite receiver at the state's EOC was accidentally connected to a live system before final internal testing of the new delivery path had been completed. The alert was followed by dead air, and then audio from designated station 720 WGN in Chicago being simulcast across almost every television and radio station in the Chicago area and throughout much of Illinois. A confused Spike O'Dell, host of the station's morning show at the time, was heard on-air wondering "what that beeping was all about".[45][46]
  • On May 19, 2010, NOAA Weather Radio and CSEPP tone alert radios in the Hermiston, Oregon area, near the Umatilla Chemical Depot, were activated with an EAS alert shortly after 5 p.m. The message transmitted was for a severe thunderstorm warning, issued by the National Weather Service in Pendleton, but the transmission broadcast instead was a long period of silence, followed by a few words in Spanish. Umatilla County Emergency Management has stressed there was no emergency at the depot.[47]
  • On September 3, 2016, in the wake of Tropical Storm Hermine, an alert was displayed on television calling for the immediate evacuation of the entirety of Suffolk County, abruptly ending with the incomplete sentence "This is an emergency message from." About 15 minutes after the original message was sent, the alert was re-issued with an addendum clarifying that the alert was actually calling for a voluntary evacuation of Fire Island--a barrier island of Long Island. Officials cited an error in the county's Code Red system; while the correct message was entered into the system, an error processing an abbreviated message for television resulted in the error.[48][49]
  • On August 15, 2017 at approximately 12:25 a.m. local time, Guam stations KTWG and KSTO transmitted a civil danger warning for the island; Guam Homeland Security described the message, which interrupted programming on the stations, and was received on television by some viewers, as being an "unauthorized test" of the EAS. The incident's impact was strengthened, as North Korea had threatened the launch of ballistic missiles towards Guam only a few days beforehand. Numerous calls to 911 operators and the Department of Homeland Security were made following the broadcast.[50][51]
  • On January 13, 2018 at approximately 8:07 a.m. local time, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) mistakenly issued an emergency alert warning of a ballistic missile inbound threatening the region, which was claimed to be not a drill. 38 minutes later, it was announced by HI-EMA and the Honolulu Police Department that the alert was a false alarm.[52][53] The incident came amidst heightened concern over the possibility that Hawaii could be targeted by North Korean missiles (in December 2017, Hawaii tested its missile sirens for the first time since the Cold War).[54] HI-EMA administrator Vern Miyagi stated that the incident was a "mistake made during a standard procedure at the change over of a shift".[55]

Cybersecurity breaches

On several notable occasions, EAS equipment became the subject of hacks by outside entities due to poor security measures, including poor firewalls, and use of insecure or unchanged default passwords on encoder hardware. In February 2013, several stations in Great Falls, Montana and Marquette, Michigan were breached in such a manner, relaying a hoax message warning that "dead bodies" were "rising from their graves". It was determined that the stations' equipment was poorly protected, and that the broadcasters had further neglected to change default factory logins or passwords, opting to use factory presets instead. Because of this, the FCC, FEMA, equipment manufacturers, as well as trade groups, including the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, urged broadcasters to change their passwords and to recheck their security measures.[56][57][58][59][60]

In a related incident, WIZM-FM in La Crosse, Wisconsin accidentally triggered the EAS on television station WKBT-DT by airing a recording of the false message during its morning show. The hosts' laughter was heard in the audio relayed.[61]

On February 28, 2017, WZZY in Winchester, Indiana was hacked in a nearly-identical manner, playing the same "dead bodies" audio from the February 2013 incidents. The incident prompted a public response from the Randolph County Sheriff's Department clarifying that there was no actual emergency.[62][63]

Tone usage outside of alerts

To protect the integrity of the system, and prevent false activations, the FCC prohibits the use of actual or simulated EAS/WEA tones and attention signals outside of genuine alerts, tests, or authorized public service announcements, especially when they are used "to capture audience attention during advertisements; dramatic, entertainment, and educational programs". Broadcasters who misuse the tones may be sanctioned (including being required to partake in compliance measures) and fined.[64]

  • Tones from the EAS were used in the trailer for the 2013 film Olympus Has Fallen; cable providers were fined $1.9 million by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on March 3, 2014 for misuse of EAS tones.[65] An event similar to this previously occurred in November 2013, when TBS was fined $25,000 for the use of EAS tones in a Conan advertisement.[66]
  • During the October 24, 2014 episode of Bobby Bones' nationally-syndicated radio show, Bones played audio from the 2011 national test as part of a rant about a genuine test from Nashville's Fox affiliate, WZTV, that interrupted Game 2 of the 2014 World Series on October 22. The errant Emergency Action Notification was relayed to some broadcasters and cable systems--particularly those not configured to reject EAN messages that did not match the current date. On May 19, 2015, iHeartMedia (who distributes the show and owns its flagship station, WSIX-FM) was fined $1 million for the incident, and was ordered to implement a three-year compliance plan and remove all EAS tones or similar-sounding noises from its audio production libraries in order to avoid any further incidents.[67][68]
  • From August 4 to August 6, 2016, Tegna, Inc.-owned NBC affiliate WTLV in Jacksonville, Florida aired an ad several times during NBC's primetime coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympics produced by the marketing department of the National Football League's Jacksonville Jaguars featuring out-of-sequence EAS tones over Jaguars training camp footage and a voiceover noting "this is not a test, this is an emergency broadcast transmission...seek shelter immediately", along with the on-screen text "the storm is coming". The ad aired four times before station compliance authorities pulled the advertisement after the local news industry blog FTVLive criticized the station for carrying it, especially during the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season. FTVLive's piece would be noted by the FCC in their decision against WTLV rendered on May 30, 2017, when it was given a $55,000 fine for carrying the offending Jaguars ad.[69][70]
  • The FCC issued several fines relating to EAS tone usage in August 2019, including ABC being fined $395,000 for using wireless emergency alert tones multiple times during a Jimmy Kimmel Live sketch, AMC Networks being fined $104,000 for using the tones in The Walking Dead episode "Omega", Discovery Inc. being fined $68,000 for including footage of an actual WEA activation during a Lone Star Law episode that was set during Hurricane Harvey, and Meruelo Group was fined $61,000 for including an EAS-like tone during a radio advertisement for KDAY and KDEY-FM's morning show.[64]

Testing errors

  • On October 19, 2008, KWVE-FM in San Clemente, California accidentally initiated a Required Monthly Test when it meant to conduct a Required Weekly Test. Furthermore, an operator aborted the test mid-way through the broadcast (failing to broadcast the end-of-message tone), causing all area outlets to broadcast KWVE-FM's programming until those stations took their equipment offline.[71] On September 15, 2009, the FCC fined the station's owner, Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, $5,000. After the fine was levied, various state broadcast associations in the United States submitted joint letters to the FCC, protesting against the fine, saying that the commission could have handled the matter better.[72] On November 13, 2009, the FCC rescinded its fine against KWVE-FM, but had still admonished the station for broadcasting an unauthorized RMT, as well as omitting the code to end the test.[73]
  • On September 21, 2017, a technical glitch in another scheduled test by KWVE caused the end-of-message tone to be omitted, causing regional participants (particularly Charter and Cox Cable systems in Orange County) to broadcast a portion of Chuck Swindoll's Insight for Living program from the station. In the audio, Swindoll was heard quoting 2 Timothy 3:1 from the Bible, stating that "extremely violent times will come". Due to the nature of the quotes (which could be insinuated out of context to be apocalyptic in nature), some viewers speculated that the accident was the result of a hack.[74][75][76]

See also

References

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  3. ^ "Federal Register 76220" (PDF). Federal Communications Commission. United States Government Printing Office. December 20, 2006.
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  16. ^ 47 C.F.R. § 11.51(D)
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  48. ^ "Evacuation Alert for Suffolk County Mistakenly Given". NBC New York. Retrieved 2018.
  49. ^ "Officials: Automated system caused false alert for Hermine".
  50. ^ Criss, Doug. "Guam radio stations freak out island with emergency alert". CNN. Retrieved 2018.
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