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It’s National Preparedness Month, when Americans are urged to plan for disasters. So here’s a recap of the latest developments in Wireless Emergency Alerts, including the enhancements that are available and steps that emergency managers and the public can take to make the most of this critical tool.

Enhanced Geo-targeting

One significant development is that Wireless Emergency Alerts are now more geographically targeted than ever before. Since last December, in response to FCC rules changes, participating wireless providers are required to deliver alerts to the entire area targeted by emergency management officials with no more than a one-tenth of a mile overshoot. (If that’s not technically feasible, wireless providers must continue to deliver alerts to their best approximation of the target area, our standard since 2017.) This is a big improvement from when the Wireless Emergency Alert program launched in 2012 and alerts were sent on a county-wide basis.

All new “WEA-capable” mobile devices offered for sale after last December must support this enhanced geo-targeting. As a result, we expect the improvement to become more widely available over time, as consumers purchase new smartphones. Our rules also require wireless providers to support enhanced geo-targeting on WEA-capable mobile devices that were released before last December and are capable of being upgraded to support this feature.

The FCC is committed to monitoring implementation progress and keeping the public safety community and other stakeholders informed. To that end, Chairman Pai today requested that CTIA update the Commission annually on the wireless industry’s estimated market penetration rates for mobile devices that support enhanced geo-targeting. The Chairman also wrote to Qualcomm, which makes the chipsets for many mobile devices, requesting confirmation that it plans to support enhanced geo-targeting in all the 5G devices that its chipsets support in the United States. In addition, he wrote to Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS), a standards organization, requesting the development of best practices to further improve enhanced geo-targeting.

More Informative and Relevant Alert Messages

Also beginning last December, emergency management officials can send Wireless Emergency Alerts that contain more information, with the maximum message length increased from 90 to 360 characters. Plus, officials can send alerts in Spanish and use a new class of alerts (“Public Safety Messages”) to convey recommendations for saving lives or property, such as the location of emergency shelters after a disaster. Many local officials are putting these improvements to use. We recommend that emergency managers review these tips for using the new Wireless Emergency Alert enhancements and tips for issuing multilingual alerts.

New Testing

In addition, as of December, emergency managers can conduct state and local Wireless Emergency Alert tests that reach only consumers who choose to participate. These tests do not require a waiver from the FCC.

Consumers can support emergency preparedness in their community by opting in to receive test alerts. If such a test is conducted in your area, your local officials may publicize how to opt in on your mobile phone. (Some popular mobile devices enable you to opt-in via the Notification setting.) You can check with your wireless provider or device manufacturer for details.

Last, but certainly not least, we very strongly urge consumers to keep Wireless Emergency Alerts enabled on their phones, which is the default setting. While it’s possible to turn most of these alerts off, they are proven life savers—so please keep them on.