FCC Approves Targeted Emergency Alerts Sought in Wake of Hurricane Harvey

The approved upgrades to the Wireless Emergency Alerts system will allow public safety officials to send alerts to all the cell phones in areas as small as one-tenth of a mile in radius.

by Robert Downen, Houston Chronicle / January 30, 2018

(TNS) - Public safety officials will soon be able to microtarget areas for cell phone alerts during natural disasters after the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday approved changes to the nation’s emergency communications system.

The approved upgrades to the Wireless Emergency Alerts system will allow public safety officials to send alerts to all the cell phones in areas as small as one-tenth of a mile in radius -- or about the size of Minute Maid Park -- once the new rules are adopted by the November 2019 deadline also approved by the FCC.

Previously, alerts could only be sent to all cellphones in a specific county -- a problem that was laid bare by Hurricane Harvey and the historic California wildfires.

"When disaster strikes, it's essential that Americans in harm's way get reliable information so that they can stay safe and protect their loved ones," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote in a statement Tuesday. "Overbroad alerting can cause public confusion, lead some to opt out of receiving alerts altogether, and, in many instances, complicate rescue efforts by unnecessarily causing traffic congestion and overloading call centers."

The unanimous vote is a huge win for officials in disaster-prone areas across the country, who in the wake of a historic year of natural disasters had warned that the current system was woefully inadequate and could, in some instances, unnecessarily push otherwise-safe people into harm’s way.

During Harvey, for example, the Harris County Office of Emergency Management largely decided against deploying the wireless alerts, fearing the messages would confuse residents who were not actually in danger. With 911 systems overloaded during the worst of the storm, officials instead had to rely on social media and mobile phone applications like Nextdoor to communicate with residents in small, specific pockets of the county.

"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,'" Francisco Sanchez, Harris County's deputy emergency management coordinator, said earlier this month. "But because I didn't have that granularity, that message would have gone countywide."

Officials in Sonoma County, California cited similar concerns in defending their decision not to deploy the wireless alerts as wildfires ravaged the area late last year.

The FCC vote also delivers a blow to wireless carriers, who had for years lobbied against new rules that they said would be expensive and could potentially overload their networks.

However, in the wake of the costliest natural disaster season in United States history, a bipartisan group of leaders had loudened their call for upgrades to the alert system.

California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris earlier this year urged Pai to approve the upgrades.

Texas Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, voiced similar demands 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 wireless alerts extensively, called the Tuesday vote "a step in the right direction."

But, he added, the "device-based geo-targeting" that allows for more precise alerts is only one of the many issues faced by emergency managers.

He said the FCC should next consider allowing longer alerts that can include hyperlinks or other useful information.

"Our research team found that short messages can be confusing and fear-inducing – not really a surprise," he wrote in an email Tuesday. "If you watch online videos of people in Hawaii getting the false alarm WEA, it supports what social science research has determined over and over again: You need to tell people what to do to protect themselves."


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