FCC Issues Rules to Improve Access to Emergency Information

by Melanie Brunson

One of the key provisions of the Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA) which ACB was instrumental in crafting gave the Federal Communications Commission a mandate to improve access to emergency alerts that are broadcast in visual form only by television stations.  The CVAA provided that broadcasters be required to make such emergency information available in an audible format as well as the traditional crawl that is often scrolled across the viewer’s TV screen.  Advocates from ACB and other blindness organizations pushed for this requirement because the current practice of accompanying emergency alerts with only a tone as an indication that viewers who can’t see the “crawl” should go to another source for information about what it might contain is woefully inadequate.  The time required for viewers to find an alternate source of information might be better used to take required precautions.  Plus, technology already exists that can make emergency alert information available in an audible format at the same time that a broadcaster makes the information available visually, thus saving precious time – and lives.
Since the CVAA became law, the FCC has sought and received a great deal of public input regarding how best to implement these requirements, and on May 21, they issued their final rule.  This rule will require that any time an emergency alert is issued by a broadcaster in visual format, two things will happen in order to give people with visual impairments access to the same information.  First, the visual crawls will be preceded by three short tones. This is supposed to serve as an alert to let those who can’t see their screen know that they should activate their SAP channel.  The emergency information that is being displayed visually will then be broadcast audibly on the SAP channel.  Any foreign-language programming or audio description that was being broadcast over the SAP channel at the time will be interrupted to allow for the spoken word broadcast of the emergency information.
In addition, the rule issued by the FCC requires that equipment manufacturers take steps to provide easier access to the SAP channel for people with visual impairments. Specifically, manufacturers are urged to provide access to this channel through pressing a single button, instead of the menus that currently make use of this channel so difficult for many of us.
The requirement for improved access to emergency information applies not only to programs broadcast over televisions, but also to programs streamed over the Internet and received by consumers using tablets, smart phones, computers, and other portable devices.  If the stream includes a visual emergency alert, the information contained in that alert must be made available in a non-visual format.  These requirements will be phased in over the next few months.  We estimate that this phase in should be complete by the end of December 2015.
As we obtain more information about how this rule will be implemented by both broadcasters and equipment manufacturers, we will let you know.  In the meantime, if you have any questions about this rule, please feel free to contact the ACB Arlington office.