FCC to Consider Cellphone ‘Geo-Targeting’ for Emergency Alerts

Hurricane Harvey and other disasters have the Federal Communications Commission considering changes to how alerts are delivered.

by Robert Downen, Houston Chronicle / January 10, 2018

(TNS) — Emergency alerts warning of flooding, tornadoes or other looming disasters could be targeted to specific neighborhoods under proposed upgrades to the nation's emergency alerts system, filling a gap exposed during Hurricane Harvey.

The proposed changes, announced Tuesday by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, would allow officials to use "device-based geo-targeting" to send alerts to all the cellphones in areas as small as one-tenth of a mile in radius. The current Wireless Emergency Alerts system only allows officials to target all cellphones in a county.

"If adopted, it will be the single most important improvement to the nation's alerts and warnings infrastructure in years," said Francisco Sanchez, Harris County's deputy emergency management coordinator.

He said that the current system's lack of precision was particularly problematic during Hurricane Harvey, which battered all 1,700 square miles of Harris County for days on end, overwhelming 911 systems and forcing officials to use mobile applications like Nextdoor to communicate with residents in dangerous areas.

As controlled releases began upstream of Buffalo Bayou, for example, Sanchez said OEM had two choices: send evacuation alerts to every cellphone in the county, possibly pushing tens of thousands of people out of their safe homes and into deadly floodwaters, or hope that thousands of people along the bayou would check social media during the night.

"I would have loved to have been able to draw a polygon around Buffalo Bayou and say, 'Hey, water is being released, expect water to rise,'" Sanchez said. "But because I didn't have that granularity, that message would have gone countywide."

The 49-page proposal unveiled by Pai largely mirrors suggestions from some of the nation's largest public safety organizations. The recommendations, if approved at the FCC's Jan. 30 meeting in Washington, D.C., would also require the upgrades to be implemented by November 2019 — years earlier than had been requested by companies including AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

Such changes have long been opposed by the nation's top telecommunications companies, which argue that the upgrades would be expensive and could potentially overload their networks.

The FCC in 2016 quadrupled the maximum length of a wireless alert to 360 characters and pushed for more alerts in Spanish. But wireless carriers do not currently have to assist with narrowing alert targeting to specific neighborhoods, and have lobbied heavily against any such requirements.

But emergency management officials say those concerns should be secondary to the safety of Americans.

In a Friday letter to the FCC, leaders from five of the nation's largest public safety groups said the technology for implementing more precise alerts is already in place.

"Phones are capable of precise geo-targeting today and WEA must have access to these capabilities," the group wrote. "Without the ability to geo-target our alert originators will continue to use WEA sparingly or not at all."

"This is a shame," the letter continued. "An effective WEA can literally mean the difference between life and death."

That sentiment has been shared by a bipartisan group of representatives from disaster-prone areas around the country. After officials from Sonoma County, California cited lack of precision as one of their reasons not to deploy WEAs during historic wildfires last year, California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris wrote a joint letter to the FCC stressing the need for upgrades.

Texas Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, voiced similar concerns in the wake of Harvey.

"Almost 11 years (after Hurricane Katrina), we continue to witness event after tragic event where an effective and reliable emergency alert system could have saved lives," he wrote in a Sept. 27 opinion column for the Houston Chronicle. "As we are in hurricane season and face more natural and man-made disasters in our future, our citizens deserve and need a device-based public alert system now that will deliver timely and accurate information to those who find themselves in harm's way."

Hamilton Bean, a University of Colorado-Denver professor who's studied WEAs extensively, said Tuesday that the recommendations were "a step in the right direction."

Bean, however, said that until more precise technology is officially adopted, emergency managers will have to be careful with when or how they deploy alerts.

"It is a dilemma: Risk sending WEAs to the wrong people, prompting them to opt out of the notifications altogether, or delay sending potentially life-saving alerts for a year or two until precision improves," he said. "I do not envy any emergency manager who has to make that kind of cost-benefit calculation."

©2018 the Houston Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

NEW ON THE PODCAST

Tech Startups Can Help Revitalize Both Ends of Your Ballot