Emergency Alerts Get More Direct

Alerting evolves to more precise mobile delivery.

by Rick Wimberly / February 16, 2016
Photo by Bill Brown/FEMA

Strong forces are at work to make emergency alerts more mobile and precisely targeted. Long gone are days when a siren blasting a loud horn near and far was sufficient to spur people to action. Now, people want information that’s precise, pertains specifically to them and is available wherever they are regardless of what they’re doing. Plus, studies show that people generally won’t take protective action unless they get an alert from at least two sources. 

Add to the mix the fact that today’s emergencies are local and difficult. Our threats don’t include a fear that bombs will be dropped on our cities from a warring nation. It’s more likely that a terrorist will plant a bomb where we live, work, learn, worship and play. Or a flood will hit an unexpected neighborhood. Or a tornado will abruptly change its path. Or someone will kidnap a child and head for the state’s border. We could go on.

It’s easy to see why emergency alerting has evolved and continues to do so. Targeting specific areas became more practical in the late 1990s when telephone alerting was introduced. Practitioners could draw a diagram on a digital map and direct alerts to specific home and business phone numbers. They can do much more now, according to Russ Johnson, director of Public Safety and Homeland/National Security for Esri, one of the first providers of digital mapping for alerting.He said alerts can be much “smarter” through use of real-time mapping where “live” information from many sources can be analyzed. Then, a geo-fence can be established around the area. If something or someone crosses into the fenced area, an alert can be automatically issued.

Todd Piett, chief product officer at Rave Mobile Safety, said new capabilities to make alert delivery more geographically precise became real because of uniquely identifiable and addressable personal devices. “Each of these devices is location aware, presence aware and uniquely tied to an individual with specific attributes,” he said. “It’s now possible to send a highly targeted message, with content relative to an individual because of who they are, where they are and what is relevant to them, and know that the message was received.”

North Dakota Homeland Security Director Greg Wilz is impressed with the granularity of precise alerting made possible by geo-fencing. “Obviously narrowing a targeted polygon area in which the public can be notified allows you to get the message to those affected and not over-alert,” said Wilz.

Ping4 CEO Jim Bender calls use of geo-fencing “hyperlocal mobile alerts.” The company uses technology that lets mobile users give permission to reveal their whereabouts as they move around. Wilz said geo-fencing alerts “keep people out of harm’s way, allowing them to be a part of the solution, and not the problem, by giving them information. Facing the facts, a very low percentage of people are really prepared for the next likely event in their area. Fast, effective communications may allow for some to improve their situations whether it be evacuations, power outages or anything in between.”

Wilz added that it’s challenging to get people to download apps that make geo-fenced alerts possible. “As people see the value in emergency alerting or being able to access critical emergency information, it will gain in becoming a must-have,” he said. “The people who send out the alerts and notifications need to do the best we can to keep alerts worthy of the time and efforts required by the receivers. As senders gain the trust of the receivers, more will participate.”

A mobile alerting solution that doesn’t require app downloads is Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), managed by FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). Most cellphones are automatically equipped to receive WEA messages, but precise geo-targeting of mobile devices has been an issue. Regulations that established WEA required mobile carriers to alert to an area no larger than a county. Some practitioners complained, saying a county is too large. 

In reality, geo-targeting via WEA is more precise than a county area and is becoming even more so. Most cell carriers have built their systems so practitioners can designate smaller geographic regions. Brian Josef of CTIA, The Wireless Association, said, “Both alert originators and providers have gotten better at targeting through learning experiences.” In the meantime, he said, “Carriers have been working with alerting authorities to help them understand the scope and breadth of their networks.”

The FCC is proposing that WEA messages be more detailed and geographically targeted. FCC commissioners recently approved tentative rules that would extend the length of a WEA message from 90 characters to 360. The messages could contain URLs, phone numbers and more data under the proposal. At the FCC meeting on the topic, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the regulations “need to be refreshed to reflect our reliance on mobile devices and their unique ability to keep us informed when disaster strikes.” The rules would be subject to public comment and final action by the commission.

Johns Hopkins University has an idea for targeting WEA messages. A study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate suggests that WEA could take advantage of geo-fencing technology similar to the way Esri, Rave and Ping4 solutions do. Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory calls the concept it developed for WEA Arbitrary-Size-Location-Aware Targeting (ASLAT). Through ASLAT, alerts would be sent via cell towers to a larger area than desired, but GPS technology being used for other purposes would narrow delivery to only the desired area.

Another concept comes from a group of broadcasters and TV set makers that’s promoting a new high-definition standard for television called ATSC 3.0. The group calls itself the Advanced Warning and Response Network (AWARN), which is currently being tested by FEMA at an IPAWS laboratory. 

AWARN says when ATSC 3.0 is implemented, new bandwidth available from TV stations could be used to deliver alerts to mobile devices. The organization’s John Lawson said that using TV signals under the new standard could not only reach an unlimited number of devices within a TV station’s coverage area, but can also send rich media content. Lawson doesn’t see AWARN as a replacement for WEA, but rather a supplement by offloading data traffic from the cell networks. To make AWARN a reality, he said, the FCC must give broadcasters flexibility to phase in the ATSC 3.0 standard. Then consumers will need to buy devices that receive ATSC 3.0.

The FCC is aware of geo-targeting issues. Chris Anderson, chief of the FCC’s Operations and Emergency Management Division, recently told a summit on ATSC 3.0-enabled alerting that he’s optimistic that alerting “is only going to get better and better.” He said being able to deliver more information with alerts, possibly through click-throughs, will help keep the public from becoming “numb” to alerts. Anderson is particularly hopeful about concepts that would let citizens receive alerts, then provide input back. His optimism is shared by Roger Stone, deputy assistant administrator of the FEMA division that oversees alerting. He told the summit, “HD signals offer tremendous potential for interactivity” associated with alerting and that IPAWS has led to the recovery of 19 missing children.

With promising new methods of more precise alerts emerging, we could be entering a new phase of the evolution where we reach people regardless of who they are, where they are and what they’re doing.

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