April 10, 2018 - 3:00 pm
By Lisa M. Fowlkes | Chief, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau

Emergency alerting has generated a lot of news in recent months. In January, the state of Hawaii mistakenly warned the public of an imminent missile attack by issuing a false alert to televisions, radios, and wireless phones.  My team recently completed an investigation into the incident—an alerting drill gone awry—and we’ll be partnering with FEMA on additional outreach to help stakeholders better understand the capabilities of the Emergency Alert System and Wireless Emergency Alerts.  We will also host a stakeholder workshop to discuss lessons learned from this experience.

The false alert in Hawaii was unacceptable, but there is also positive news on the alerting front. Wireless Emergency Alerts are saving lives, and the service is becoming an even more powerful tool for emergency managers to keep their communities safe.

Promoting Public Safety

Since the Wireless Emergency Alert system launched in April 2012, it’s been used to issue over 36,000 emergency alerts. For example, Wireless Emergency Alerts were used extensively in all areas affected by last year’s hurricanes, including 21 wireless alerts sent in Puerto Rico alone.  We also understand that local California officials used they system 20 times in response to last year’s wildfires.

But most important are the success stories. For instance, representatives from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and officials in Marin, Mendocino, and Ventura Counties reported that the Wireless Emergency Alerts sent during the wildfires helped to move people in their communities to safety.  Another example: Wireless Emergency Alerts are being used to transmit AMBER Alert messages to consumers’ cell phones—and are credited with the safe return of more than 50 missing children.  

New Improvements

The FCC is now strengthening Wireless Emergency Alerts, building on stakeholder experience and technological advancements since the service began.  Some of these improvements are already in place, while implementation for others is underway. For example, you can expect:

  • Greater Geographic Accuracy: When Wireless Emergency Alerts launched, participating wireless providers were generally required to send the alerts to a geographic area no larger than the county or counties affected by the emergency.  As of November 2017, however, all participating wireless providers are required to transmit alerts to a geographic area that best approximates the area affected by the emergency, even if it is smaller than a county.  In addition, beginning November 30, 2019, participating wireless providers must improve geo-targeting of alerts even further, with no more than a 1/10th of a mile overshoot from the affected area.
  • Enhanced Ease of Use: Nationwide wireless providers are now required to support "clickable" embedded links in alerts so that you can click on a url to see a photo of a missing child, for instance.  Participating small and regional wireless providers are required to support “clickable” links by May 2019.
  • More Content and Reach: Participating wireless providers must support longer messages (expanding the maximum length from 90 to 360 characters) and Spanish-language messages by May 2019. 
  • New Alerts: The FCC has added a new alert option—called a “Blue Alert”—to the nation’s emergency alerting systems.  Blue Alerts can be used by state and local authorities to notify the public of threats to law enforcement and to help apprehend dangerous suspects.  Participating wireless providers may begin to transmit these alerts no later than July 18, 2019.

The FCC is also continuing to consider proposals to improve wireless alerting through multimedia, multilingual, and many-to-one alerting, as well as through point-of-sale disclosures.  In fact, we are now seeking additional stakeholder input on multimedia alerting.

A Final Word for Emergency Managers

As Wireless Emergency Alerts become an even more effective means for public safety officials to warn and inform the public during crises, emergency management agencies that are not already authorized to send emergency alerts may want to consider becoming trained and qualified through FEMA.

As for the FCC, we will continue to work with stakeholders—including government partners, industry, and public interest groups—to ensure that the nation’s emergency alerting systems are as robust and effective as possible.