During crises, it is critical that emergency messages from local authorities are accessible to all affected communities, including non-English speakers.  The Emergency Alert System (EAS), which delivers critical warnings and information over radio and television, and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), which deliver critical warnings and information to the public on their wireless devices, can be used by emergency managers as part of their multilingual outreach efforts.  The following guidance is intended to assist authorized alert originators with these efforts.

General Guidance

The FCC’s Intergovernmental Advisory Committee (IAC) released a multilingual alerting report in 2019 that recommends best practices alert originators can follow to support multilingual alerting using the EAS and WEA.  The IAC’s recommendations include:

  • Identify language groups in your area.  The U.S. Census website is an important source for understanding the alerting and educational needs of non-English speaking people in your area.
  • Prioritize alerting in the native languages of communities in your area that do not understand English.  Be mindful that data showing that a group’s primary language is not English may not mean that the group does not understand English.
  • Develop community outreach programs.  Outreach should be an ongoing conversation that engages non-English speaking individuals and individuals with disabilities, educates them on EAS and WEA alerts, and gains their help in crafting alerts that they easily understand on platforms that they use.  Aim to understand language, culture, and technology barriers that can prevent emergency alerts from being effective.
  • Develop secondary resources in priority languages.  Secondary resources (e.g., websites, applications, PSAs, and templates) allow those who see an alert to have a trusted resource to get more information in a format that they can understand.  The use of links in WEA messages can easily lead to these resources.  Rich media should be accessible even if connectivity is limited or the network is congested.
  • Prioritize training for local alert originators.  Local alert originators tend to have greater cultural competency regarding the needs of individuals in their areas.  They need access to and competency with all available alerting tools and procedures to ensure that emergency alerts effectively reach non-English speaking individuals and individuals with disabilities.

The FCC also held a workshop on multilingual alerting, where participants offered additional suggestions.

Guidance for Specific Alerting Systems

Emergency Alert System

The EAS provides two methods for initiating alerts, both of which can distribute multilingual content:

Legacy EAS:  EAS alerts initiated using the legacy, “over-the-air” EAS—a mechanism where alerts are distributed between and among “EAS Participants”, such as radio and television broadcasters, cable systems, satellite radio and television providers, and wireline video providers—can include a multilingual audio message, provided the entire length of that audio message (i.e., both the English and non-English portions) does not exceed roughly 90 seconds.  The legacy EAS is incapable of distributing text.

  • Any multilingual audio transmitted over legacy EAS will be distributed to all geographic location codes included in the alert, not just to non-English speakers.

Internet-based EAS: EAS alerts initiated for distribution over the Internet using FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System can also relay alert messages in multiple languages.

  • Alert originators may include up to 1,800 characters of English and non-English text in the enhanced text field for an Internet-based EAS alert’s video scroll.
  • Internet-based EAS text will be scrolled only by EAS Participants (e.g. broadcast, cable, and other television providers) that receive the Internet-based version of the alert and provide video service.
  • Internet-based EAS also supports multilingual audio, like legacy EAS.
  • Internet-based EAS provides the capability to generate multilingual audio in languages other than English using Text-to-Speech (TTS) software.  To utilize EAS Participants’ TTS software, the EAS Participant must have installed it in their EAS equipment and programmed it to generate audio in the selected language.  The accuracy and reliability of TTS varies, and EAS Participants’ adoption of TTS software is limited.

Whether using legacy or Internet-based EAS, alert originators should consult with their State Emergency Communication Committee (SECC) to determine the geographic service areas of EAS Participants in their jurisdiction that support multilingual EAS.  This information can be helpful in mapping out potential pathways to getting multilingual alert content to the correct geographic areas.

Wireless Emergency Alerts

WEA supports alerting in English and Spanish.  When initiating a WEA alert, an alert originator must generate a primary-language version of the alert message that contains a maximum of 90 characters for transmission over legacy networks.  An alert originator may also generate a second primary-language version of the alert message of up to 360 characters for transmission on 4G-LTE and future networks.  For each message length, an alert originator may also generate a Spanish-language version of their alert message.  The Spanish-language versions of alerts will only be displayed to wireless subscribers whose device settings specify Spanish as the preferred language.

WEA is not designed to support languages in addition to English and Spanish at this time, but alert originators have translated their alert messages into additional languages within the longer version of their alert, and can also include in their alert message an embedded URL that leads to a webpage where translations in multiple languages can be accessed.

For further information, please contact James Wiley, Attorney Advisor, Cybersecurity and Communications Reliability Division, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, at (202) 418-1678 or james.wiley@fcc.gov or David Munson, Attorney Advisor, Policy and Licensing Division, at (202) 418-2921 or david.munson@fcc.gov.

Updated: 
Tuesday, March 30, 2021