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Not Deploying Available Technology in Wireless Emergency Alerts Is ‘Costing us Lives’

Major carriers need to follow through with enhancements to public safety alerts.

On the heels of the devastating wildfires in Northern California, hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria, the FCC rejected the five largest wireless carriers’ requests for more time to implement upgrades to Wireless Emergency Alerts.

It was September 2016 when the FCC adopted rules to enhance wireless alerts, including increasing the maximum length of messages from 90 characters to 360 characters and requiring that providers support embedding phone numbers and URLs in alerts.

Since then, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) sought delays in implementing the new rules. The FCC finally rejected the industry’s reconsideration of the rules.
“It’s amazing that it took four disasters to make this come about,” retired Adm. David Simpson, former FCC public safety and homeland security bureau chief told the San Francisco Examiner. “It should be an embarrassment to the commission, but it’s done.”

Francisco Sanchez, a member of the FEMA National Advisory Council Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Subcommittee, expressed relief that the changes can be pursued.

“From my perspective, all of the recommendations approved last year by the FCC were a consensus agreement out of dialog between public safety officials, social scientists, mobile phone developers and technology experts, and the fact that the industry would ask for more time on issues they agreed to is concerning.”

Sanchez said that the rules still fall a bit short of what’s needed and far short of what technology allows. He said if there was the ability to send geo-targeted alerts to just those immediately effected is the single most important public safety issue, and that more alerts would have been sent during Harvey and other disasters if officials had that ability.

“Using the device to be able to tell you where you are to decide whether you need to get that alert is essential for us to provide public safety information not only during Harvey, the evacuations during Maria, the wildfires in California but also during the kind of mass shootings we’ve seen recently,” Sanchez said.

In Sonoma County, Calif., more than 20 people died in the wildfires, and county officials said they didn’t send out emergency alerts because they couldn’t narrow down the recipients and were worried they’d cause too much alarm for others.

“What public safety officials would like to see is to be able to draw a polygon and have confidence that everyone in the polygon will get the alert and the people outside the polygon will not see it,” Sanchez said. “The technology is there but there’s a resistance by the carriers to implement that because it’s a voluntary program and there has been a delay by the FCC requiring it. At this point, not having that is costing us lives.”

Dianna Bryant, executive director for the Institute for Rural Emergency Management, said the alerts are especially important to rural residents and travelers. “I’m especially interested in rural communities, since the budget for them to pay for different notification systems is always limited, and subscribing to some opt-in texting notification system isn’t always available,” she said.

“And especially for travelers and visitors who would not normally be included in any type of notification system that a local community might subscribe to, this provides a way that even people travelling through those areas can receive some notification.”

The rules adopted by the FCC in 2016 when implemented will:

•    increase the maximum length of WEA messages (from 90 to 360 characters) for 4G LTE and future networks;
•    require participating wireless providers to support inclusion of embedded phone numbers and URLs in all WEA alerts, including WEA Amber alerts, which will enable the public to click to see a photo or to call authorities;
•    require participating wireless providers to deliver the alerts to more granular geographic areas;
•    create a new class of alerts (“Public Safety Messages”) to convey essential, recommended actions that can save lives or property (e.g., emergency shelter locations or a boil water order); 
•    require participating wireless providers to support transmission of Spanish-language alerts; and
•    make it easier for state and local authorities to test WEA, train personnel, and raise public awareness about the service.