(By Rebecca Jacobs Goldman) You have likely heard of the FCC’s Emergency Alert System (EAS) Amber Alert, but what you may not know is that a new hue of EAS alert will now be implemented – the Blue Alert (code BLU).
The Blue Alert will alert radio listeners and others to an imminent and credible threat involving the death or serious injury of a law enforcement officer, threats to cause death or serious injury to a law enforcement officer, or missing law enforcement officers, over the EAS and Wireless Emergency Alert system. According to the FCC, Blue Alerts will provide a quick means of alerting the public if a violent suspect may be in their area, and will provide instructions on what to do if the suspect is identified.
Broadcasters need to put the new Blue Alert on their engineering to-do list. The FCC gives broadcasters 12 months to implement the Blue Alert event code through equipment upgrades, software updates, development, and testing. Broadcasters must update their software to add the BLU event code to other existing codes, such as those for weather-related events, 911 outages, and child abduction emergencies.
The Blue Alert plan was enacted by Congress in 2015 under the Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu National Blue Alert Act of 2015 (Blue Alert Act), which supported the need for a dedicated EAS event code for police officers. Under the Blue Alert Act, Congress directed the Attorney General to establish a national Blue Alert communications network within the Department of Justice to issue Blue Alerts using plans that would be adopted in coordination with states, local government, law enforcement agencies, and other relevant entities. DOJ’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) is the national coordinator of the Blue Alert network and works with the FCC and other agencies to carry out the plan.
The EAS rules require broadcasters to participate in any nationwide communications issued by the President, providing the President with the means to quickly disseminate information to the public. The Blue Alert will be treated in the same manner as other alerts informing the public of localized day-to-day emergency situations. For such alerts, state and local agencies will have the option to send warnings by means of a Blue Alert through the EAS in a manner similar to other emergency situations, including emergency weather events such as tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes, and man-made emergencies, such as toxic spills and widespread power outages.
The COPS Office established Blue Alert guidelines for the issuance of the Blue Alerts, requiring that the alerts only be issued when a request is made by a law enforcement agency with jurisdiction over the incident, and only in instances of death or serious injury of a law enforcement officer in the line of duty, threat to cause death or serious injury to a law enforcement officer, or in the case of a missing law officer in connection with their official duties. The guidelines also state that any threat must be imminent and credible and the alert should not be issued unless the suspect involved has not been apprehended and there is sufficient information available to identify the suspect.
Law enforcement agencies, generally, and the National Association of Broadcasters are on board with implementation of the new alert code, pointing to the effectiveness of similar alert programs. While the issuance of any particular Blue Alert will be optional, the implementation of the Blue Alert capabilities on existing EAS equipment is required. Broadcasters need to focus on what may be needed to upgrade existing equipment or software within the next 12 months to allow for dissemination of the new Blue Alert.
Rebecca Jacobs Goldman is a communications attorney with the law firm of Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP. She can be reached at [email protected]