FEMA releases report favoring FM RBDS for alerts


FEMA / Federal Emergency Management AgencyFEMA has released to the public an updated study funded by Homeland Security and prepared by Northrup Grumman that means great news for FM chips in cell phones. The report, “Radio Broadcast Data System Study Demo Report and Product Spec..” is calling FM Chips and the RBDS system a viable enhancement to the current cellular alerting systems. Keep in mind—it’s not only cellphones, but anything with an FM chip that is capable of doing emergency alerting.

What’s good about this report, first released in 2010, but now updated, is that it shows the public-private partnership of commercial companies actually installing and implementing systems, because FEMA doesn’t do that.

At the time the study was completed, the cellular carriers were in the middle of doing their CMAS—Commercial Mobile Authorization System (the cellular EAS alerting system). Now that that has been deployed, the public sees that that doesn’t do the trick when the cell towers are down.

Now they are releasing this study most likely to focus more on the radio infrastructure that’s redundant—unlike cell towers. RBDS is important because it is a standard that has been there and applied by several different vendors in the study successfully. Click here to see the full report.

Bobby Adams, Global Security Systems CEO, tells RBR-TVBR his Alert FM system (www.AlertFM.com) has been in place in 13 states with over 200 Homeland Security customers. “We’re trying to get the government to recognize this so we can roll it out to the consumer electronics devices. Our portals don’t necessarily switch to IPAWS, it goes out locally and statewide over the FM infrastructure. Now we post to IPAWS, but that doesn’t mean we wait on IPAWS to see if that server comes back from DC. It’s not that reliable. We install dedicated systems like Global Security and Alert US, as do other companies in that study.”

Alert FM is the personal emergency alerting system that uses Radio Broadcast Data Service (RBDS) FM-subcarrier technology to deliver up to 240-character text messages to any electronic device with Alert FM software and an enabled FM radio receiver chip, including those that are mobile. AlertUs Technology and Metis Secure were also part of the study.

“As with any new technology or information, industry and government have dedicated the appropriate resources to further our goal of a comprehensive national alerting system for emergency purposes,” says Adams. “The process has taken several years to guarantee a long service life and ease of use for many of these systems, including GSS/AlertFM. Before 9/11/2001, GSS, NAB, and the thousands of broadcasters involved in public safety issues have invested millions of dollars to innovate and develop a benchmark for emergency alerting using traditional radio infrastructure. Our efforts provided standards and a benchmark for  government entities to trust broadcasters with delivering systems necessary for public safety.”

He adds, “The cell carriers, I believe, should embrace RBDS in radio so they are not the only system to rely on to save lives. We don’t compete with cell alerting, we feel we enhance it if the chip is in the phone. We don’t want an adverse relationship—neither does Gordon Smith of the NAB—with the Cellular Association or carriers. We just think RBDS—which does both audio and text (because we use the main audio channel too)—is better. We can even wake up the phone even if it’s off, using RBDS data with a text message, and turn the radio on the cell phone—even if you don’t have cell service or your phone is disconnected.

“GSS and NAB have always supported mass notification as it pertains to public safety. Continuing our 50+ year commitment to communities around the country, the broadcast industry looks forward to participating with every public and private entity to ensure critical, life-saving, messages reach every individual in minimal time. Therefore, broadcast is perfectly, complimentary to the cellular data (mobile phone) network.”

From the study:

“Northrop Grumman Corporation (NGC) has prepared this Demonstration Report and RBDS Product Specification to support the Performance Work Statement (PWS), under Contract Number GS23F0058K, Order Number HSFEMW-09-F-0538, and Requisition W456782Y. Under this contract, NGC assists the National Continuity Programs (NCP), Federal Emergency Management Agency (hereinafter referred to as FEMA) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to support development of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) through the demonstration of Radio Broadcast Data System (RBDS) technical capabilities.

This report complies with the requirements outlined in the Statement of Work (SOW), and addresses a period of performance that began on September 30, 2009, and concludes on September 29, 2010.


FEMA serves as the White House’s Executive Agent for nationwide systems including the National-level Emergency Alert System (EAS). In FEMA’s role as Program Manager for DHS IPAWS, FEMA is charged with managing large complex systems involving multiple layers of coordination at the local, state, and federal levels to improve the nation’s alert and warning capabilities. IPAWS and other contingency programs are designed to provide Americans with critical and timely hazard alerts and warning information that saves lives and property during emergencies and natural disasters.

RBDS technologies have already been employed to distribute digital alert messages through FM radio stations. To improve the speed and penetration of Federal, State, and Local emergency alerts and warnings, FEMA is evaluating this innovative method to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the alerts and warnings distribution infrastructure. This study validates the usefulness of existing RBDS technologies to deliver notification to individuals during emergencies.

The objectives for this study are detailed here from the contractual statement of work and include:

–Validating the benefits of an RBDS. (refer to Section 2.3)

–Understanding the RBDS capability and how it may integrate into IPAWS. (refer to Section 3.1)

–Testing and assessing the quality of the RBDS. (refer to Section 2.3) 1

IPAWS RBDS Study Demonstration Report and RBDS Product Specification

–Identifying the plan for a potential implementation. (refer to section 3.3)

By meeting these objectives, the IPAWS Program Management Office will validate the usefulness of the existing RBDS technologies in delivering notifications to individuals during emergencies.


RBDS technologies are currently in use by many FM broadcast stations, providing services in addition to their main broadcast content. These services utilize subsidiary carriers, frequencies which are combined with and broadcast with their normal audio programming. The most commonly encountered subcarrier is the 57 kHz RBDS signal, which often conveys the station call letters, slogan, and/or artist and title information displayed by many FM receivers. The North American RBDS standard was introduced in 1993 and was based in part upon the pre-existing European Radio Data Standard (RDS).

This study capitalized on the existing RBDS installations by requesting information and data from the current RBDS vendors to create a RBDS Market Survey. The results of the Market Survey along with the objectives of the study refined the scenarios that were demonstrated. Three scenarios were created that mirrored two of the three critical scenarios in the IPAWS Test and Evaluation Master Plan (TEMP). The third scenario was a Campus Security Incident which replaced the IPAWS TEMP terrorist attack critical scenario one.

Three vendor systems were chosen for the study and their equipment was deployed for a three month operational period. During this operational period, the systems were used by the emergency managers for real-world notifications as well as specific witnessed scenario demonstrations. Vendors involved in this study implemented RBDS technology to solve two different problem sets. Two vendor systems solve alerting the public in an enterprise environment. Their receivers are wall receivers installed in locations where a large population is expected, much like an enhanced fire alarm system. In this report we refer to these as Enterprise style systems. One vendor system focuses on personal alerting. While this vendor also has wall units located in public places similarly to the Enterprise style system, their focus is on desktop/mobile receivers that are designed to be mobile and carried by a single user. In this report we refer to these as Personal style systems.

Feedback on the systems (refer to Section 2.3) was received from the “users” of the systems including the Emergency Managers who originated the notifications, the FM Broadcasters who provided the broadcast infrastructure, and the public alert recipients who received the alert notifications. This feedback, as well as technical data collected during the demonstration period, was analyzed to evaluate the benefits and test the quality of RBDS technology against FEMA’s Key Performance Parameters (KPPs) and Additional Performance Factors (APFs). Based on the analysis, strengths and areas for improvement were identified for each KPP and APF.

Analysis of the current but not finalized IPAWS architecture was performed to determine if and how the RBDS technology may become one of the system-of-systems. The analysis provided recommendations and considerations for the necessary changes and standards to allow for RBDS technology insertion into IPAWS (refer to section 3.1).

IPAWS RBDS Study Demonstration Report and RBDS Product Specification

The following sections detail the major strengths and areas for improvement for RBDS technology identified as a result of the study and provide a product specification for RBDS technology which describes how it may integrate with the IPAWS architecture, along with a plan for potential implementation.


Local and State Emergency managers are relying on Enterprise and Personal style RBDS technology to provide the necessary emergency alerting communications to millions across several states and enterprises. Through demonstrations, responses to real-world events, and analysis conducted during this study, this technology has proven to be a viable technology for public alerting and warning. Evaluation of RBDS technology against FEMA’s KPPs and APFs (Table 1) validates its effectiveness as a mechanism for public alert and warning.


A secondary role of RBDS that is in use today is the dissemination of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather alerts without passing through state or local unique alerting systems. One particular RBDS system currently has the capability to monitor NOAA via the internet for weather alerts and, based upon the geo-targeted information within the weather alert, transmit the alert via satellite to the FM Broadcasters with the vendor’s installed RBDS equipment servicing the targeted area. In this way users can use the RBDS receiver much like they use weather radio for receipt of emergency weather alerts. This provides imminent threat weather alerts through RBDS to areas with a RBDS footprint, even where local emergency management is not currently using RBDS as an alert disseminator. As indicated in the figure, in the future these weather alerts may be initiated through the IPAWS architecture and disseminated through multiple alert dissemination paths including RBDS.

Three areas were identified which would further advance RBDS insertion into the national IPAWS architecture. Enabling cellular phones as RBDS receivers (Section 3.1.1) will provide a single platform with multiple alerting mechanisms, increasing the likelihood that an emerging alert is received at the platform. Inclusion of RBDS into cellular handsets can be an effective hedge against issues in receiving cellular transmissions, including network congestion during emergency periods and reduction in cellular network coverage due to vulnerabilities of cell towers.

Improving RBDS message dissemination (Section 3.1.2) was a second area considered to advance RBDS into the national IPAWS architecture. The RBDS Study has demonstrated the use and effectiveness of RBDS technology at the state emergency manager, local emergency manager, and enterprise emergency manager level. As the FM Broadcaster coverage is virtually ubiquitous, it can provide the capability for individuals to receive FM signals almost anywhere in the country at home, in the car, or even walking around using portable devices. The FCC already considers broadcasters as a major partner during emergencies at the national level. This relationship could be leveraged to implement RBDS as a path for emergency messages with all of the broadcasters currently supporting and planning to support EAS transmissions.

The third area considered to advance RBDS into the national IPAWS architecture would originate CAP messages in RBDS (Section 3.1.3). This would enable integration of generated alerts with the IPAWS aggregator and transmission through multiple message disseminators in the IPAWS architecture. This will allow the emergency managers to leverage the alert disseminators available through the IPAWS architecture and provide their stakeholders additional paths by which they may receive emergency messages.

An RBDS system consists of an end-to-end system used for the delivery and receipt of message data via the RBDS channel of an FM Radio Broadcaster. The message data is used to transmit emergency information prior to, during, and following emergency incidents. Functional requirements are proposed as a basis for a system to be considered an end-to-end RBDS system. These proposed functional requirements are intended to be used as guidance on the capability of an ideal RBDS system. These requirements may be used as a starting point for discussion and creation of more detailed specifications. Over 30 proposed functional requirements (Section 3.2) were defined, including requirements related to the origination, transmission, and receipt of alert and warning messages.

If the RBDS technology were to be incorporated more fully into the IPAWS architecture, a potential implementation plan (Section 3.3) could include the following activities:

–mandate cellular carriers to activate FM/RBDS chips where they currently exist in their cell phones and mobile devices

— commission a Special Interest Group (SIG) to create a technical standard for RBDS receivers that would foster interoperability across RBDS vendors

–develop and implement a campaign to make the public more aware of the RBDS technology and how to gain access to this form of public notification

–evaluate the interaction between the RBDS subcarrier and the main audio channel particularly throughout the entire EAS activation from the tones through broadcast of the message, and develop guidance for the installation of RBDS in broadcaster facilities so that the RBDS subcarrier will continue to be transmitted during EAS activations

— develop an RBDS infrastructure deployment plan to install the necessary equipment at FM Broadcasters within the “Top 100 Metro Areas”

— update policy/rules/standards as necessary to mandate CMAS cellular broadcast to integrate with RBDS on a single mobile device

— mandate cellular carriers to work with their mobile device manufacturers to install the FM/RBDS chip into all of their new models

–encourage consumer electronics manufacturers to install the FM/RBDS chip into their products, thus extending the number of potential RBDS receivers

— initiate the development and adoption of a standard set of Emergency Alert symbols which would be representative of a wide range of possible emergency situations and actions to be taken

In conclusion, this study has validated the benefits of RBDS technology and has demonstrated that it warrants consideration for the dissemination of national, state, and local public alerts and warnings. Origination of alerts and warnings within the RBDS systems, as well as ownership and maintenance of these systems, is expected to continue as a local and state function as it is currently. The demonstration and associated analysis and assessment have shown that the RBDS technology has major strengths that support this mission as well as areas for improvement. The RBDS technology can currently function as an alert disseminator within the IPAWS architecture.”

RBR-TVBR observation: By FEMA releasing the study, it is acknowledging that these systems are viable. It’s time for this country to have a national alert warning system for cell phones. It’s looking like the only way to do that is with the radio stations and FM RBDS chips in cell phones. Adams tells us you may see a national initiative soon to roll this out nationwide with all of the radio stations.

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Carl has been with RBR-TVBR since 1997 and is currently Managing Director/Senior Editor. Residing in Northern Virginia, he covers the business of broadcasting, advertising, programming, new media and engineering. He’s also done a great deal of interviews for the company and handles our ever-growing stable of bylined columnists.
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