In its December 14, 2021, Open Meeting, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Notice of Inquiry (NPRM and NOI) in the Emergency Alert System (EAS) proceeding to improve the accessibility and functionality of nationwide EAS tests, primarily by improving and expanding the availability of text-based messages for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The EAS is a national public warning system where broadcasters, cable systems, and other EAS participants deliver alerts to the public to warn of national and local emergencies, including severe weather-related threats. Today's EAS is comprised of both a legacy broadcast system and an internet-based Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) system.

Legacy EAS alerts, as opposed to CAP alerts, relay audio messages only, along with a visual depiction of the audio message that typically contains less information than the audio alert. In contrast, CAP alerts can be sent with enhanced text, enabling transmission of more expansive information to the public.

The Commission proposes rule changes to improve the accessibility of visual messages associated with the nationwide EAS tests that are relied upon by persons who are deaf or hard of hearing. Specifically, the NPRM proposes the use of a predetermined script as the visual message for legacy EAS nationwide tests and proposes to revise the terminology of the header codes used for the tests.

Among other things, the NPRM seeks comment on:

  • Whether these changes can be effectuated by a software update;
  • Whether the accuracy of the test results would be impacted;
  • Whether the changes will improve accessibility for individuals with disabilities;
  • Whether less burdensome or more effective alternatives exist; and
  • How to best implement these system changes into the software and EAS devices.

Additionally, the Commission aims to promote the use of the internet-based CAP system because of its capability to provide matching visual and audio messages. The current rules allow EAS participants to choose which version of an alert—either legacy or CAP—is processed and delivered to recipients.

To increase participants' use of the CAP system, the NPRM proposes to require EAS participants to check for and use available CAP versions of all state and local area alerts (excluding nationwide tests) instead of the legacy EAS versions, if available. The NPRM seeks comment on this proposal and whether the shift to CAP would increase accessibility for individuals who cannot access EAS audio messages, or if any alternative changes would better enable delivery of accessible messages.

The NOI seeks comment on how the legacy EAS architecture can be modified, augmented, or redesigned to enable alert originators to relay visual text that matches the audio components of legacy EAS alerts and to enable greater functionality within the overall system. For example, it seeks comment on how to develop a visual message to transcribe two-minute audio messages, or if not technically feasible, whether the legacy EAS system should be redesigned to incorporate automated or real-time functionalities.

Comments on the NPRM will be due 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, with reply comments due 45 days after publication. Comments on the NOI will be due 60 days after publication and reply comments will be due 90 days after publication.