In FCC comment, NPR voices concern over costs of multilingual emergency alerts

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Mike Janssen/Current

NPR is concerned about the costs for public radio stations of an FCC proposal aimed at making the Emergency Alert System more accessible for non-English speakers.

Tens of thousands of warnings mostly in English covering emergencies such as AMBER alerts and natural disasters go out every year through TV and radio stations, cable providers and other services, according to a Feb. 15 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

The commission has proposed creating a process for distributing prescripted alerts in 13 additional languages. The NPRM sought comments on providing the “template” alerts in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Haitian Creole, Hindi, Italian, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement that the emergency alerts can save lives. 

“But these alerts only work if we understand them,” she said. “In the United States, over 26 million people have limited or no ability to speak English. That means we have to get creative and identify new ways to reach everyone in disaster.”

But in written comments filed April 8, NPR said public radio stations often have “shoe-string budgets,” and the proposal might require new or updated equipment or software. 

“In the absence of voluntary participation, funding should be made available to defray the costs,” NPR said.

NPR, which said it supports improving the system’s accesibility, called for the FCC to encourage public stations to voluntarily adopt the proposal instead of issuing a “new unfunded requirement.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Program Office also shared cost concerns in written comments filed April 9. 

“Maintaining updated EAS equipment could become expensive and burdensome, and the cost impact will be proportionally greater for smaller EAS participants,” the agency said. 

The federal agency also warned against generic alerts that wouldn’t have the specific location, threat and guidance needed to get people to respond appropriately during an emergency. 

NPR also wanted the FCC to clarify the proposal that alerts be transmitted in the language of a channel’s content, suggesting this be based on the “majority” of a channel’s content. 

“What if one channel provides most of its programming in the English language, but has occasional non-English language programming content?” NPR said. “… In such cases, these public radio stations may be discouraged from providing any programming content that is in a language different than the language of most of its programming content, in order to avoid potentially costly and burdensome EAS equipment changes.”

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