Emergency Alert Systems Getting Overhaul

The Federal Communications System reviewed letters from two California senators about improving emergency alerts.

A system designed to send emergency alerts to your cellphone has been updated following major concerns about the alerts that are meant to save lives.

The Wireless Emergency Alerting system or WEA is run by the federal government. Cell towers are used to target who receives the warnings. Local emergency officials create and send out these alerts.

"WEA gives us a phenomenal capability to reach the public in a quick and efficient manner," said Chris Ipsen, spokesman for the Los Angeles Emergency Management Department.

A WEA by Orange County called for mandatory evacuations when the Canyon Fire 2 erupted in October.

Northern California officials did not send out a WEA during a recent deadly fire because they did not want to cause a traffic jam.  Pinpointing exact locations can be an issue.

"People that are not in the impacted area may get that message," Ipsen said.

Last month, the NBC4 I-Team showed you the letter California senators Kamala Harris and Diane Feinstein sent the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, asking why rules proposed last year to enhance the system run by FEMA, never happened.

After the rules were adopted, the FCC asked for public comment and additional proposals.

As of Nov. 1, all WEAs must include geo-targeting, a way of delivering content, based on geographic location.

And, the five largest mobile service providers must provide clickable embedded references, like a map that can pop up on your mobile phone during an evacuation order.

This may not be possible, according to city officials.

"For the wireless emergency alerts we are limited to 90 characters so we cannot put embedded messages in," Ipsen said.

The FCC says the deadline to support another rule, increasing WEA message lengths to 360 characters, is May 1, 2019.

In an email to NBC 4, a FEMA spokesperson said "recently, the National Weather Service, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) jointly filed a comment to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in support of an expedited timeline for device-based geo-targeting implementation.   

NWS, DHS, and FEMA agree with state and local public safety agencies that the timetable for geo-targeting be expedited to 30 months, instead of the minimum 42-month timetable recommended by two wireless carriers to the FCC on Sept. 22 and 26. Efforts to deploy this capability should begin immediately in order to save lives.  NWS, DHS, and FEMA are ready and willing to engage in a cooperative effort to implement device-based geo-targeting as soon as possible."

A spokesperson for CTIA, the group representing the wireless industry, said "the wireless industry works closely with the public safety community, as well as federal agencies, such as the FCC and FEMA, to maximize the proven lifesaving benefits of Wireless Emergency Alerts. Tens of thousands of alerts have been issued since wireless carriers first voluntarily deployed emergency alerts in 2012, and industry has made additional improvements to the alert system, including embedded references and geo-targeting below the county level, so even more lives can be saved."

Reacting to the recent update by the FCC, the Senators released a joint statement.

They said: "We are pleased to see the FCC Chairman commit to address this issue, but the Chairman has not answered our basic questions nor specified a timeline for action. We will closely monitor FCC proceedings to make sure these improvements are made to the WEA system. The next natural disaster could be around the corner, and when it comes, timely notifications could mean the difference between life and death."

In the meantime, testing of the Wireless Emergency Alerting system continues.

"We look forward to working with FEMA partners to make it a better system," Ipsen said.

The LA Emergency Management Department recommends people sign up for NotifyLA alerts which is an opt in system based on your ZIP code that can send messages with embedded items. Text 888-777 with your ZIP code to sign up.

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