WOWO EBS activation

An oldie, but a goodie, February 20, 1971, WOWO gets an EAN via AP teletype and follows the procedure:

Back in the days of EBS, there were weekly closed-circuit tests via AP and UPI teletype. In the event of a real Emergency Action Notification (EAN) there was a red envelope that contained a set of code words for each month. The test code words were on the outside of the envelope. If an EAN was received, the envelope would be torn open and the actual code words would be matched against the code words in the message. If it were authenticated, then the station would do just what WOWO did right then, send the two-tone EBS alert for 25 seconds and break into programming.

It is amazing that this did not happen more often, especially on a Saturday morning with a sleepy Airman in Colorado pulling the wrong message tape off the rack at the message center responsible for the whole system.

It happened more recently when an EAS message was sent to evacuate the entire state of Connecticut.  An EAN was sent in Chicago warning of a national attack when state officials were testing their new system.  I am sure that others have been sent as well.

I suppose the emergency notification has always left something to be desired.

Common Alert Protocol (CAP)

Since the FCC started the CAP clock ticking on September 30th, there has been a flurry of activity regarding the manufacture and installation of CAP equipment.  CAP is integrated into something called IPAWS, which stands for Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.  In other words, CAP is the vehicle that IPAWS uses to get information broadcast through radio, TV, Cable systems, etc.  IPAWS encompasses all alert types including cellphone, texting, e-mail, and landline phone calls.  Many states, including New York State, already do this.  FEMA spells out the reason for IPAWS:

The advent of new media has brought a dramatic shift in the way the public consumes information. IPAWS, as the next generation emergency alert and warning system, capitalizes on multiple electronic media outlets to ensure that the public receives life-saving information during a time of national emergency.

Historically, the public depended exclusively on radio and television to receive alerts, but current research shows that the reach of radio and TV is less than 40% of the populace during the work day. While less than 12% of the population is watching TV in the middle of the night, an even smaller number is tuned into the radio, at 5% of the populace. Television and radio will continue to be valuable sources of public information, but their reach is decreasing. Further, these information sources can only target a state or regional sized area and do not encompass alerting for people who do not speak English or those with disabilities, including the 29 million suffering from hearing impairment.

Today, the internet, including video and email, and cellular and residential phones are increasingly popular and therefore, valuable, sources of information. One study showed that the Internet has a 62% usage rate, averaging at 108 minutes a day. While television remains the most popular source for information, the Internet ranked either first or second at both work and home.

CAP figures into this by acting as a method to move data between IPAWS and EAS.  The basic CAP converter polls a CAP server, somewhere, for messages.  When a message for a geographic area is received, the CAP converter processes it and converts it to an EAS format, which is then sent via high-level audio to the station’s EAS encoder decoder unit.  The EAS unit receives the information and then has the final say (or station personnel if the EAS unit is in manual) as to whether the EAS message gets transmitted.

FEMA will be setting up a national CAP server in the next month or so, expect an announcement from them in November.  Each state can also set up a CAP server for state and local government use.  This will be implemented on a state-by-state basis.  Currently, there is no information on the New York State Emergency Management Office’s (NY SEMO) website, hopefully, they are aware of all of this and will be updating their system shortly.

The CAP converters installed in individual stations will access the CAP servers via secure HTTP connections.  They will also be able to download software updates from the manufacturers via the same method.

Ready for CAP? (AKA Common Alert Protocol)

Like any good government agency, the FCC in conjunction with FEMA is working on upgrading the acronym-heavy EAS system with CAP, which stands for Common Alert Protocol. CAP includes something that  FEMA has been working on something called IPAWS, which stands for Integrated Public Alert Warning System.

The FCC is still in the comment/response process (FCC Docket 04-296) which can get long and drawn out.  I would not expect to see any NPRM until late fall 2010 with any changes taking effect in early 2011 or so.

Basically, CAP looks like this:

An EAS to CAP converter monitors a CAP source (think e-mail server) and when a CAP message is received, it converts it to EAS protocol and sends it to an input source of an EAS encoder/decoder.  The EAS encoder/decoder then passes that information through and broadcasts it.   Of course, the EAS encoder/decoder can still be programmed to pass through specific types of messages for specific areas and ignore all others.

Thus far, several manufacturers have designed CAP converters for use with existing EAS units:

Implementation would look something like this:

EAS CAP converter diagram

For a TFT-2008 system.  Others such as SAGE and Trilithic are integrated into the EAS encoder/decoder units.  Basically, the CAP part of the EAS system needs an ethernet port with access to an IP gateway to receive messages from the CAP server located off site.  That is the weak link in the system, as far as I am concerned.

It is not like some of our so-called trading partners have been trying to tinker with the inner tubes or anything.  It is also not like that same trading partner makes most of the cheap ethernet switches and routers found in many radio stations, hardware that can be easily configured remotely.  Configured to redirect certain IP addresses to new, exciting, and exotic locations such as Iran or Pakistan.

Perhaps I am paranoid, or not.  It falls back to my time in the military when somebody said “It’s good to be a little paranoid if everyone is out to get you.”

What is really wrong with EAS?

Aside from it hasn’t worked… Over the last several, the FCC has released no fewer than five proceedings regarding EAS.  To date, few, if any meaningful changes have taken effect.  The stated purpose of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) is to:

  1. provide the communications capability to the President to address the American public during a national emergency.
  2. may be used by state and local authorities to deliver important emergency information, such as AMBER alerts and weather information targeted to specific areas.

Seems pretty straightforward.  Local weather emergencies would seem to be the most likely reason for EAS activation, followed by things like Amber Alerts, chemical spills, evacuations, etc. To meet those ends, the FCC mandates that radio (traditional and IBOC), television, cable, wireless cable, direct satellite TV, and satellite radio participate in some way or another.  So far, it seems like a fair idea.  Then comes the implementation, which is flawed. To start with, EAS still relies on a daisy chain relay system designed during the 1960s for CONELRAD.  The over-the-air monitor assignments of other broadcast stations are the only mandatory information sources in the system.  Other, more relative local sources such as the national weather service, local government, and so forth are optional. Next, the most used and most useful part of the EAS, local and state-level alerts are completely optional.  Very little or no information is provided to local government agencies on how to access EAS in the event of an emergency.  Then the issue becomes one of unmanned stations.  The initial EAS message goes out over the airwaves, which takes about 2 minutes at most, then it’s back to the music.  No amplifying information, check back for more information when it becomes available, etc.  Nothing.  It has occurred in several cases where a radio show is voice tracked, complete with a weather forecast, which is the opposite of real-time weather warnings.  If one happens to miss the initial EAS broadcast because they were listening to another station or whatever, well, too bad. Finally, the National Weather Service itself over-activates.  One line of summertime thunderstorms passing through the area can trigger 10 or even 20 EAS alerts.  Over-activating, with the same digital tones (rrrrrrannk, rrrrrrank, rrrrrank) followed by the EBS tone than some computer-generated voice just gets annoying. To summarize:

  1. The national EAS has never been tested, who knows if it will work
  2. The EAS relies on unreliable over-the-air daisy chain relays for its mandatory monitor assignments
  3. Local and State level EAS (including weather-related alerts, something that could be really useful) is optional
  4. When connected to the NOAA weather radio system, the NWS overuses the EAS activations

Here is an idea:  For at least ten years now, the idea of a CAP has been batted around.   It seems like a good idea, let’s do that.  Get rid of EAS, send emergency information to everyone’s cellphones or whatever, and stop fining broadcasters for missing a monthly test.  The weak link in the EAS is the broadcaster’s themselves.  History has shown (over and over again) that the current crop of radio station owners cannot be bothered to meet even the simplest of their public obligations.  The FCC has shown it is only interested in collecting big fines for missed EAS tests, not actually making the system work.  The system is broken.  As terrestrial radio (and TV) goes terminal, the public will still need to receive emergency information, the CAP idea can fill this requirement. It is time to pull the plug on EAS once and for all.