In October 2018, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) issued a presidential wireless alert to millions of cellphones. The alert included a special vibration, a loud tone and a text message that read, “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.”
Many people were perplexed and even alarmed by the alert. It seemed to be initiated by President Trump, but government officials have since clarified that the president wouldn’t have the ability to send an official alert. It also seemed to conflict with, or at least not coordinate with, the emergency alert system used by broadcasters.
The controversy undoubtedly spurred some comedy, which is perfectly legal. What turns out not to be legal is to use either the tones from the emergency alert system or the tone from the national wireless emergency alert system as part of a bit.
Fines are being assessed for misuse of the alert tones
As Reuters recently reported, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) assessed ABC $395,000 in civil penalties after “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” used a simulated wireless emergency alert sound several times while making fun of the presidential alert test.
ABC admitted having broadcast the alert tone “in the absence of an actual emergency” or authorized test. However, it told the FCC that it misunderstood the law. It has removed that portion of the episode from its website and online streaming and will not rebroadcast the episode.
Separately, AMC Networks agreed to a $104,000 fine after “The Walking Dead” used an alert tone in February 2019.
Discovery’s Animal Planet has agreed to pay $68,000 after the actual wireless emergency alert tone appeared on “Lone Star Law.” In an episode about Texas Game wardens after Hurricane Harvey, the crew caught a real wireless alert on tape and broadcast the video.
Meruelo Radio Holdings broadcasted a simulated alert signal while promoting a morning show for Southern California’s KDAY and KDEY-FM. They were fined $67,000.
The FCC told Reuters that the non-emergency, non-testing use of these tones is prohibited in order “to avoid confusion when the tones are used, alert fatigue among listeners, and false activation of the system by the operative data elements contained in the alert tones.”
In other words, no matter how funny your bit, you should consider emergency alert tones off-limits.