Shortly before Hurricane Harvey hit, Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), activated the Disaster Information Reporting System and deployed personnel to Texas to monitor communications outages and work on restoration efforts, according to Recode in a report about advancing the wireless emergency alerts system.
As the storm hit, Tropical Storm Harvey quickly disrupted at least 17 emergency call centers and 320 cellular sites, resulting in 148,000 consumer outages. The FCC receives daily reports from carriers on the outages, according to Arts Technica.
For local public safety officials, wireless emergency alerts dispatch critical information during a disaster. They have urged the FCC to expand the system to take advantage of smartphones abilities to go online, display maps and share and play photos and videos. But some device manufacturers and the major carriers want to slow the pace of improvements like better targeting of emergency alerts, known as geo-targeting, and the ability to add multimedia content to the messages.
Device Limitations for Wireless Emergency Alerts
Pai endorses a “device-based approach to geo-targeting,” according to the Recode report. That means devices screen emergency messages and display relevant ones. But in mid-August, Apple lobbyists told FCC officials the iPhone cannot currently screen emergency messages for locally relevant data. Changes to scan for such information might hold back important information, and also drain the device battery, they said.
The Harris County Department of Homeland Security Chief Technology Officer, Francisco Sánchez, said device-makers could play a greater role in expanding emergency alerts. But Sanchez was more concerned that the carriers are asking the FCC to delay the timeline for critical improvements to the wireless emergency alerts (WEA) system.
Carriers Cite Network Congestion
According to the Recode report, carriers argue that advancements like foreign language capabilities are technically difficult and costly to implement, and would congest networks.
“Currently, Harris County rarely uses WEA because it does not want to potentially alert the entire county when a WEA message may only pertain to a certain portion of the county,” wrote Sánchez in a letter to the FCC. He told Recode that local public safety officials are challenged they can’t easily send emergency alerts to specific areas.
The telecomm providers that participate in the WEA program do so on a voluntary basis. In 2016, an FCC order increased the length of wireless emergency alerts from 90 to 360 characters. The agency also required participating carriers support embedded URLs and telephone numbers in the public safety alerts. They recently requested more time for compliance in order to tailor and test embedded references in alerts.
While Pai indicated that WEA alerts are often sent to too broad an area, there is no indication what FCC’s next steps will be to advance both the geo-targeting and content of wireless emergency alerts.