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Tech Topic 21: Emergency Alert System (EAS)1

The Emergency Alert System (EAS) is a nationwide emergency alerting program that broadcasters, cable and wireless cable television systems, and other service providers identified by the Commission (as EAS Participants) must provide communications capability to the President to address the nation in national emergencies. EAS also is available at the state and local level to enable EAS Participants, on a voluntary basis, to transmit local or state emergency information, such as severe weather warnings and child abduction alerts (“Amber Alerts”). The Commission, in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Weather Service (NWS), implement EAS at the federal level.

The current EAS system, established in 1997, is an evolution from the previous national alerting systems, the Control of Electromagnetic Radiation (CONELRAD) of the 1950’s and the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) of the 1960’s, that grew out of the cold war era and the threat of nuclear warfare. More recently on June 26th of 2006, President Bush issued Executive Order 13407 (Public Alert and Warning System) that directed to the Department of Homeland Security that "… it is the policy of the United States to have an effective, reliable, integrated, flexible, and comprehensive system to alert and warn the American people .... and to ensure under all conditions the President can communicate with the American people."2 The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) directed FEMA to lead the DHS efforts to implement EO 13407 due to FEMA’s long-standing leadership and direction of the EAS and National Alert and Warning Systems (NAWAS) programs as well as the overarching Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) program initiatives that were established to meet the provisions of the executive order.

The current EAS system remains a significant component of the larger more expansive IPAWS3 and is a hierarchical alert message distribution system. The national EAS delivery/transmission system is commonly referred to as a “daisy chain.” At its initial level, it consists of various FEMA-designated broadcast stations – known as Primary Entry Point (PEP) stations – which are tasked with receiving and transmitting “Presidential Level” messages initiated by FEMA. As the entry point for national level EAS messages, these PEP stations are designated “National Primary” (NP) stations.

At the next level (i.e., below the PEP stations), designated “State Primary” stations monitor specifically-designated PEP stations and re-transmit the Presidential-level alert, as well as state-level EAS messages originating from the Governor or a designated official at the State Emergency Operations Center (EOC). At the level below the State Primary stations, Local Primary (LP) stations monitor the State Primary and PEP stations and are monitored, in turn, by all other EAS Participants (radio and television broadcasters, cable TV service providers, etc.).

At present, the United States is divided into approximately 550 EAS local areas, each of which contains at least two Local Primary stations, designated “Local Primary One” (LP1), “Local Primary Two” (LP2), and so on. The LP stations must monitor at least two EAS sources for Presidential messages (including State Primary stations and in some cases a regional PEP station), and also can serve as the point of contact for state and local authorities and NWS to activate the EAS for localized events such as severe weather alerts. All other EAS Participants are designated Participating National (PN) stations and must monitor at least two EAS sources, including an LP1 and an LP2 station as specified in the state’s EAS plan.

PEP, LP-1 and other stations transmit the message to the public and other stations

State and local emergency operations managers also can request activation of the EAS by utilizing state-designated EAS entry points, such as the State Primary (SP) stations or State Relay (SR) stations.4 State Relay sources relay state-common emergency messages to local areas.5 Local Primary sources are responsible for coordinating the carriage of common emergency messages from sources such as the NWS or local emergency management offices as specified in EAS local area plans.6 State transmission systems vary from state to state, but can include “daisy chain” links between broadcast and other terrestrial communications facilities as well as satellite-based facilities.

Part 11 of the FCC’s rules contains the requirements for EAS Participants.7 Generally, all analog radio and television stations, wired and wireless cable television systems, Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS), Digital Television (DTV), Satellite Digital Audio Radio Service (SDARS), digital cable and Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB), and wireline video systems operators are required under the FCC's rules to comply with EAS rules.

Service providers opting to not participate in the EAS must receive an authorization letter from the FCC to that effect and must cease transmissions or programming on all channels during a national-level EAS message. These Non-participating National (NN) sources “are required to broadcast the EAS codes, Attention Signal, the sign-off announcement in the EAS Operating Handbook, and then stop operating.” 8

In May 2007, the Commission adopted a Second Report and Order9 in which it provided the groundwork for “Next Generation EAS” with four cornerstones: 1) maintain the existing EAS network; 2) utilize a common messaging protocol, the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), to be implemented by all EAS Participants following its adoption by FEMA; 3) incorporate new authentication and security requirements; and 4) foster the deployment of new, redundant EAS delivery systems, including satellite, Internet, and wireline networks. These new networks should support delivery of more targeted and detailed alert information to EAS Participants based on CAP to be developed by FEMA

The order required EAS Participants to be capable of accepting CAP messages no later than 180 days after FEMA announces its adoption of CAP standards.10 CAP is an XML-based11 protocol that will help enable the transmission of EAS alerts in a variety of formats (including text, audio and video) and via different transmission means (broadcast, cable, satellite, and other networks), as well as promote the development of Next Generation EAS. Adoption of CAP and the implementation of Next Generation EAS also will enable delivery of alerts to persons with disabilities and to non-English speakers. The Second Report and Order also expanded EAS to include wireline video providers, and required terrestrial EAS participants to transmit state and locally-targeted EAS alerts originated by governors or their designees following Commission review of revised state EAS plans.

There are several key features or attributes of EAS worthy of further comment:

  • 1. A Presidential EAS Alert has never been issued – The EAS is a national alert and warning system that exists primarily to enable the President of the United States to issue warnings to the American public during emergencies. To date, however, neither the EAS nor its predecessor national alerting systems have been used to deliver a national Presidential alert. EAS has thus far been used solely for the voluntary transmission of state and local alerts, approximately 70 percent of which are severe weather alerts. On January 6, 2010, a live code test of the EAS was conducted from the White House to the state of Alaska as a first time “national-level” test.

  • 2. State and local Alerts are delivered to the EAS pursuant to procedures described in State and Local Plans. State and local authorities must submit their plans for review by the FCC, which determines their consistency with federal obligations and requirements. Transition to CAP-based signaling and toward the Next Generation EAS architecture will require significant revisions to currently-filed state and local EAS plans that should encompass all of the potential alert mechanisms.

  • 3. To help ensure EAS readiness, FCC-mandated EAS tests must be run on a weekly and monthly basis. The rules require certain “test” codes to be used for EAS testing purposes, as opposed to “live” event codes that would indicate an actual emergency. However, some states and the NWS have sought to conduct tests using “live” codes. EAS Participants who wish to participate in tests using “live” codes must receive a rule waiver from the FCC. The Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau (PSHSB) has granted such waivers where proponents describe steps taken to prevent public misinformation and panic. On the other hand, a more comprehensive live-code source-to-destination national test regime is needed and a national-level live code test is being planned in the wake of the January 6th test in Alaska.

  • 4. FEMA has not yet developed the CAP standard for Next Generation EAS.12 On October 13, 2009, the Organization for the Advancement of Structural Information Standards (OASIS) voted to approve the OASIS Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) v1.2 USA IPAWS Profile as a technical specification for public alert systems. The OASIS Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) v1.2 Standard provides a standard for emergency messages to the public. The OASIS CAP v1.2 IPAWS Profile is a subset of the CAP Standard to ensure interoperability with the existing and future emergency messaging systems including EAS and Next Generation EA; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Weather Radio (NWR), and HazCollect; and the forthcoming Commercial Mobile Alerting System (CMAS). FEMA has informed the communications industry along with its federal alert partners that it may adopt the technical standard as early as the third quarter of 2010. On November 20, 2009, FEMA IPAWS kicked off the Conformity Assessment Program at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU). The CA Program will evaluate vendor products and certify that they are compliant with the CAP v1.2 IPAWS Profile. Successful completion of the CA Program will result in a list of products with a Supplier’s Declaration of Conformity and listing on the Responder Knowledge Base. Assessments will be conducted in two groups, the first from February through April 2010, and the second from May through June 2010.

  • 5. FEMA’s adoption of a particular CAP standard will necessitate a rewrite of current FCC rules. Unlike current analog/digital EAS signaling, CAP employs an XML language derived from HTML developed for use over the Internet. CAP is not, however, an Internet-based signaling technology.

  • 6. The FCC may use CAP rollout as an incentive to encourage greater State participation in EAS. Following implementation of CAP, a state may submit a revised EAS State Plan describing how CAP-formatted gubernatorial EAS messages will be transmitted. Upon FCC review and approval, such messages will be carried on a mandatory basis on EAS within that state, subject only to Presidential pre-emption.

In a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking adopted concurrently with the Second Report and Order, the Commission sought comment about how best to deliver EAS alerts as well as broader emergency and public safety information to persons with disabilities and non-English speakers. The Further Notice asked whether EAS Participants also should be required to deliver EAS alerts originated by local, county, tribal, or other state governmental entities.

In addition, the Further Notice sought comment on several possible means for assessing EAS operations, including additional testing, station certification, and post hoc assessments of how well the system worked after an EAS warning has been triggered. The Commission also specifically directed PSHSB to convene a meeting – or series of meetings – with stakeholders to explore how to promote the provision of emergency information to non-English speakers. PSHSB held two such meetings, in August and November 2007. Thereafter, broadcaster EAS stakeholders held conversations with proponents for multilingual messaging throughout the summer and fall of 2008 with inconclusive results.

Emergency alerts and warnings of this nature are a critical component of government efforts to inform the public of impending or ongoing emergencies and provide them with the information they need to take appropriate action to protect themselves and their families. It is essential that the EAS be tested at the state and local levels periodically to ensure operability and to identify any potential issues that may arise and develop solutions to address them on an ongoing basis. From time to time, it is essential to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the EAS to determine the ability of the system to provide vital emergency messages to the public on a regional or nationwide basis.

To that end, in the summer of 2009, as part of an initial 30-day review by the Chairman, the FCC voiced a concern to the National Security Staff (NSS) that the EAS would not function reliably in the event of a Presidential activation. In addition, the Commission indicated that the testing of EAS is inadequate and the architecture and operation are at risk of failure since a test of “live-code alerting” of a Presidential message has never been done. As a result, the Commission is currently working with FEMA and the National Weather Service to initiate a three phase testing regime that will ultimately lead to a national-level live code test of the EAS.

In summary, the EAS and follow on Next Generation EAS are extremely important national alert and warning assets. As part of a potential larger alert and warning architecture, they play an important role in our nation’s well-being and in providing for the safety of our citizens.


1 The Policy Division of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau was a major contributor to this article. We extend our sincere appreciation to the Division Chief, Mr. Tom Beers, for their assistance.

2 See http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/eo/eo-13407.htm

3 See FEMA’s IPAWS web site for further details at http://www.fema.gov/emergency/ipaws/

4 The State Relay Network is composed of State Relay sources, leased common carrier communications facilities, or any other available communication facilities. In addition to EAS monitoring, satellites, microwave, FM subcarrier, or any other communications technology may be used to distribute state emergency messages. See 47 C.F.R. § 11.20.

5 47 C.F.R. § 11.18(d).

6 47 C.F.R. § 11.18(b).

7 C.F.R. Part 11 at http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_08/47cfr11_08.html.

8 See 47 C.F.R. Part 11.18 at http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_08/47cfr11_08.html

9 See Review of the Emergency Alert System; Independent Spanish Broadcasters Association, the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ, Inc. and the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, Petition for Immediate Relief, EB Docket No. 04-296, Second Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, 22 FCC Rcd 13275 (2007), as modified by Erratum (2007) at http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-07-109A1.doc.

10 FEMA presently anticipates adopting CAP as early as the third quarter of 2010. See “FEMA Reaches Milestone with Integrated Public Alert & Warning System” available at http://www.fema.gov/news/newsrelease.fema?id=49848.

11 Extensible Markup Language (XML) is a form of Internet Protocol that allows the transmission of EAS information in multi-media formats similar to normal Internet or web pages. See http://www.w3.org/XML/ for more information on XML

12 See http://groups.google.com/group/ecig-public/browse_thread/thread/5ef001fb7abc3ca5.