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Multilingual Emergency Alerts: More Than Just Alerting

by: Lisa Fowlkes

August 16, 2010

It is indisputable that broadcast radio and television plays a critical role during times of disaster.  One need only look at the role broadcast played in delivering critical emergency news and information during the snowstorms of 2010 that blanketed the Northeast, recent tornadoes, floods and the hurricanes of 2008 and 2005 to know the pivotal role broadcast plays in ensuring the safety of life.  When disasters hit, it is imperative that all of us receive timely alerts and warnings, access to the latest information about an emergency situation, and guidance from government officials on what we should do to protect ourselves and our families.  For most of us, access to this information before, during and after a disaster is so commonplace, it is taken for granted.

Imagine, however, being one of the significant population that does not speak English.  If you are lucky, you have access to least one broadcast station that airs programming in your language.  If a disaster occurs, you expect that you will be able to receive Emergency Alert System (EAS) alerts, as well as other warnings and critical emergency information from that station.  But, what happens if that station has lost power and is no longer operating?  Where will you receive information regarding access to food or shelter?  How will you learn how to report or locate a missing relative?  How will you know about the best evacuation route?

“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 in situations of war, terrorist attack, natural disaster, and other hazards to public safety and well-being …and to ensure that under all conditions the President can communicate with the American people.”  Executive Order 13407, Public Alert and Warning System (June 26, 2006).  The Executive Order extends this alert and warning policy to those “without an understanding of the English language.”  But beyond emergency alerting, it is clear that people who do not speak English must have timely access to the same accurate emergency information that is made available to everyone else.

So, how do we address this?  For those of us in the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau (PSHSB) who work on emergency alerting issues, this question has been in the forefront of our minds.    One suggested approach is to designate within each market with a significant non-English-speaking population, a station or stations that can take on the task of airing emergency information in the language of a station that is knocked off the air.  This concept has been referred to as the “designated hitter” approach.   For example, if a Spanish-speaking station can no longer operate as a result of a disaster, another, previously designated station in that market would broadcast emergency information in the language of the downed station.  Some suggest that this approach will be costly  because the designated broadcast station would need to hire staff proficient in the language of the downed station.  Would simply allowing the staff of the downed station (who presumably would be proficient in the language of that station) to have some regularly scheduled air time at the designated station address the cost issue?  In other words, how costly would it be to allow staff of the downed station to broadcast emergency information for a few minutes at the top of the hour with announcements during the day about when to tune in to such programming?  Other possible objections include how the designated station would know that the foreign language station was off the air, and what would happen if the same disaster disabled the designated station?

Another option is for stations in the market and/or the government to pre-position equipment in various markets (particularly those subject to hurricanes and other disasters) that can be used to build a temporary station that can replace the one that is off the air.  This has been referred to as the “radio in a box” approach.  Presumably, the staff of the downed station would then broadcast programming, including emergency information, from the temporary station.  How costly would this approach be?  Would this approach address the issue?  What happens if the temporary station goes off the air or can’t be deployed in a timely fashion?  Would some combination of a “designated hitter” and “radio in the box” approach address the issue?
   
Some have suggested that the Federal government needs to develop a policy for multilingual alerting.  What policy should the Federal government adopt?  Should the Commission integrate multilingual alert planning into state and local EAS plans?  How would a Federal policy on multilingual alerting address the broader issue of ensuring that people who do not speak English have access to timely emergency information that is typically broadcast during or following a disaster?

Finally, some have suggested that minimal or no regulatory action is necessary here as broadcasters have a history of assisting each during disasters.  Indeed, when a Spanish language station went down during Hurricane Gustav in 2008, PSHSB reached out to other broadcasters for assistance.  In response, one broadcast licensee offered access to one of its functioning stations in the market to the Spanish language station.  Other stakeholders view this issue as too important a public safety issue to rely on “self-regulation.” 

PSHSB welcomes additional dialogue from stakeholders on this issue.  Written ideas should be submitted in the Emergency Alert System rulemaking docket (04-296) through the Electronic Comment Filing System.

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