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Multilingual Emergency Alerts: More Than Just Alerting

August 16th, 2010 by Lisa Fowlkes - Deputy Bureau Chief, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau

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.

4 Responses to “Multilingual Emergency Alerts: More Than Just Alerting”

  1. Chris says:

    I believe that all broadcast stations have the right (via a license) to transmit emergency information of the language of their choosing. What's next? Requiring a minimum of non-English programming per week?

    We should embrace technology to develop a new personal EAS decoder that will translate the codes and display them locally in the language of the user's choosing. Maybe even enhance the EAS digital specification to allow scripts to be transmitted and translated automatically by the end-users hardware.

  2. Guest says:

    The Federal Government should stay out of this issue. The last thing we need here is more bureaucracy for the broadcasters. Additionally to what minority group do you cater? There are growing population counts in several ethic groups; to provide a regulatory imperative to issue warnings/messages in Spanish denies other ethnic minorities that same protection if a particular ethnic group has fewer folks do they just loose out? How long would it take information to be conveyed in say 4 languages; and which one gets to go first, I'd hate to be the language broadcast last about the Tornado headed my way. What if your deaf by the way; I'm certain were not doing a great job accommodating folks who are hard of hearing either.

    Try using your head on this issue instead of pandering to a specific group.

    If you really want a more comprehensive solution and have Federal control require that the NOAA broadcasts accommodate a multi lingual alerting system. Either have sub channels that offer a different language or more easily require the digital information transmitted to weather radios have the ability to be displayed in multiple languages. The latter option would be right up the Federal Government's alley, make the electronic industry solve the problem and make no changes to the existing infrastructure of the EBS. Based on a language choice entered by the end-user the digital readout on these radios would convey the imminent threat in thier preferred language. Also include a jack on the device that will trigger a device for handicapped folks like the deaf, a jack that either opens or closes a circuit during an alert could be used to trigger a strobe light, or other assistive devices (there are many). These devices might cost more afterwards maybe 20-30 dollars but who wants to put a dollar limit on safety or the cost of human life? I willing to pay more the device knowing it will help others even if I don't need the features.

    Broadcasters know their respective markets way better than you do because they need to sell the folks in the market advertising. If they have one or two ethnic groups in the area that speak a foreign language they tend to offer up the info in those languages already.

    We appreciate your concern but your Federal involvement will only add more cost to the end-user in the long run and is likely to alienate specific classes of folks in the process. If you are going to get involved focus your efforts on your existing infrastructure and fix the flaws in it before you try to branch out.


  3. Lisa M. Fowlkes says:

    Chris and Bob,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my blog on this important issue. Your thoughts will be very helpful as we at the FCC continue to think about this matter.

    Lisa M. Fowlkes
    Deputy Bureau Chief
    Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau
    Federal Communications Commission

  4. SKuo says:

    I’m glad to see renewed interest in multilingual disaster warnings. I addressed this issue several years ago at a symposium on Hurricane Katrina hosted at Washington and Lee Law School and in an article published as part of that symposium: Speaking in Tongues: Mandating Multilingual Disaster Warnings in the Public Interest, 14 Wash. & Lee J. C.R. & Soc. Just. 3 (2007). Considering the large numbers of language minorities with limited English proficiency living in the United States, the need for multilingual warnings and alerts is an urgent one. Interested readers can find my article on the SSRN site here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1665125. A shorter blog post on the subject is available here: http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2010/09/multilingual-disaster-warnings.html.

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