False alarm could land CBS 2 in trouble

CBS 2 Chicago

WBBM-Channel 2 could be facing a substantial fine or other penalty from the Federal Communications Commission for illegally broadcasting emergency warning tones in a news promo.

The CBS-owned station aired the Emergency Alert System Attention Signal in the opening of its 5 p.m. newscast Thursday. It was used to tease a story about an Amber Alert child abduction that had been issued — and rescinded — earlier in the day.

FCC regulations strictly forbid the false, fraudulent or unauthorized use of the signal. “Any transmission, including broadcast, of the EAS Attention Signal or codes, or a simulation of them, under any circumstances other than a genuine alert or an authorized test of the EAS system violates federal law and undermines the important public safety protections the EAS provides,” according to an FCC enforcement advisory. “Failure to comply . . . may subject a violator to sanctions including, but not limited to, substantial monetary forfeitures.”

Derek Dalton

Derek Dalton, president and general manager of CBS 2, acknowledged that the signal was used improperly. “It was a mistake and we have taken the appropriate steps to make sure it does not happen again,” he said.

Dalton would not say whether the part-time producer who was believed to be responsible for the error had been disciplined. He declined further comment on the matter, including whether the FCC had been informed.

A violator is required to notify the FCC that it has transmitted a false alert to the public within 24 hours of its discovery, "informing the commission of the event and of any details that the EAS participant may have concerning the event."

In this case, the signal tones were used to preview a story by CBS 2 reporter Mai Martinez about the kidnaping of a 7-month-old girl Thursday afternoon. The car she was in had been driven off by a man who jumped into the driver's seat during a traffic stop in the area of I-90 westbound in Belvidere. The Amber Alert was canceled less than an hour later when the child was located unharmed and reunited with family.

Among recent citations by the FCC for similar infractions:

  • In 2013, WNKY, the NBC/CBS affiliate in Bowling Green, Kentucky, was fined $39,000 for using EAS tones in a commercial it produced for a local licensed sports apparel store.
  • In 2013, cable network TBS was fined $25,000 for using EAS tones in a 2012 promo for Conan O'Brien's talk show.
  • In 2014, Viacom, NBC Universal and ESPN were fined $1.9 million for airing a commercial for the film "Olympus Has Fallen" that used EAS tones.
  • In 2015, iHeartMedia was fined $1 million when Bobby Bones, syndicated morning host at WSIX in Nashville, Tennessee, replayed an EAS test, which aired on 59 stations. (Since August of this year, Bones has been airing on iHeartMedia country WEBG 95.5-FM).
  • In 2017, WTLV, the NBC affiliate in Jacksonville, Florida, was fined $55,000 after Scott Jones of FTVLive.com reported the station used the EAS audio in a promo for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

In January panic ensued in Hawaii after a false ballistic missile alert was issued via the Emergency Alert System. It was rescinded 38 minutes later. The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency attributed the incident to a "mistake made during a standard procedure at the change over of a shift."

Friday's comment of the day: Kris Kridel: Congratulations, Regine [Schlesinger], journalist and friend. The newsroom will miss you.