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Emergency Managers Hopeful on Wireless Emergency Alerts Upgrades

FCC releases proposal that would be a huge boon for public safety.

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On Jan. 5 of the new year, emergency managers sent a letter to the FCC requesting, among other things, to allow a more precise targeting of alerts during a potential disaster and to accomplish via device-based geo-targeting and to do it before May 2019.

On Tuesday, the FCC responded with a 49-page proposal, calling for device-based geo-targeting, which would send alerts to cellphones in areas targeted — as small as one-tenth of a mile in radius. This would be a huge upgrade from the current Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system, which allows for targeting cellphones in a county.

This and other recommendations, could be approved at a Jan. 30 meeting in Washington, D.C. If approved, the upgrades would have to take place by November 2019.

Nick Crossley, president of the U.S. Council of the International Association of Emergency Managers, one of five groups, (also including the National Emergency Number Association; the National Emergency Management Association; the United States Conference of Mayors; and Big City Emergency Managers) who wrote the Jan. 5., letter, said the proposal is “As much of a win as you can get,” for the time being.

“They still have to vote on it,” Crossley said. “It’s a pretty quick turnaround. We’re still going to come in again before the hearing and we’d like them to tighten up the requirements a bit, but we’re pleased for right now.”

Along with the geo-targeting, the emergency management groups are asking for multimedia alerts — those that incorporate photos, videos, maps infographics, etc., to allow citizens to take advantage of current technology and improve the understandability for people with limited English proficiency.

“Many to one” feedback was another request, which would allow consumers to respond to polling questions issued by emergency management or public safety officials about current conditions during a disaster. It would provide a more interactive response by citizens and allow officials to better respond with resources.

Also requested was multilingual messaging for a broader capability to reach non-English-speaking residents.

Hamilton Bean, professor at the University of Colorado-Denver, said that aside from the geo-targeting, the proposal didn’t quite get at what the group was asking for. He said the proposal mentioned aligning the deadline for Spanish language with the order to increase character length from 90 to 360 but was vague in addressing some of the concerns.

“I think this is a step in the right direction, but I don’t see it fully responding to the concerns that were raised in that letter,” Bean said.

That said, the geo-targeting capability is extremely important to the emergency management community. “The more you are able to geo-target with increased specificity, [the more] you are going to reduce the reluctance of emergency managers to use that system because a lot of people are afraid they are going to over-alert and turn people off and the people are going to turn off the settings,” Bean said.

That scenario played out in recent disasters, including the Northern California wildfires where emergency managers opted not to send out alerts because of a lack of geo-targeting.

“We will become more dependent on those mobile emergency alerts as we go into the future and try to use every tool possible,” Crossley said. “Obviously the letter states pretty clearly how important this is to us.”