September 21, 2016–New York City officials have cited the use of wireless emergency alerts (WEAs) during the hunt for the suspect in recent bombings in the city and in New Jersey, and have urged the FCC to make changes to the system, saying that if they had been in place, WEAs would have been enhanced.
The FCC plans to consider a draft WEA order and further notice of proposed rulemaking at its Sept. 29 meeting. An ex parte filing yesterday in PS docket 15-91 reporting on a conference call between New York City officials and Brendan Carr, wireless, public safety, and international legal adviser to Commissioner Ajit Pai, said WEAs were used three times in response to the Sept. 17 bombing in New York City, “including being utilized to assist law enforcement in the search for a suspect.”
The New York City Emergency Management Department (NYCEM) said during the call that it “continues to support inclusion of URLs and telephone numbers in WEA messages.” It said being able to use URLs would have allowed it to include a link to a photograph of the suspect in the first WEA it sent on the morning of Sept. 19.
NYCEM also noted that two other WEAs included locations in New York City. “Although these messages were intended for one block, the WEA system’s limited geo-targeting capability required NYCEM to select a larger area to improve the likelihood that the intended residents would receive the alert,” it said. “Despite geo-targeting the message to several square blocks, NYCEM has received anecdotal reports that individuals far outside of the target area received the message. Technology today allows ride sharing mobile apps like Uber and Lyft to geo-locate customers within a few feet, while WEA remains solely reliant on cell towers and sectors. WEA must leverage the native capacity of today’s handsets to improve the state of emergency alerting and prevent warning fatigue.
“In light of the current threat environment NYCEM strongly encourages the Commission to require device-assisted geo-targeting in the upcoming rule and order,” the filing added. “NYCEM believes there is already an abundance of support for such a rule on the record, and that the public interest would best be served by including this issue in the upcoming Rule and Order as opposed to including it in a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.” The filing also said that “NYCEM continues to support the Commission’s proposal to allow multilingual WEA messaging. There are more than 200 languages spoken in New York City and it is important that messages be understood by those who speak a language other than English. Presently, NYCEM offers approximately 80 of its most common messages in the 13 most commonly spoken languages in New York City, including American Sign Language.” In addition, “NYCEM strongly supports the rule for obtaining ‘crowdsourced feedback’ following issuance of a WEA message,” the filing said.
Others in public safety have recently expressed support for improved WEA geo-targeting, noting that enhanced geo-targeting was a recommendation of a report approved last week by the FCC’s Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council (TRDaily, Sept. 14). “Simply put, device based geo-targeting provides the lightest lift with the biggest return,” Francisco Sanchez Jr., liaison to the director and public information officer of the Harris County (Texas) Office of Homeland Security, said in an ex parte filing last week.
As circulated, the FCC’s draft WEA order would increase the maximum length of WEA messages to 360 characters, limit the use of embedded phones numbers and other information to Amber Alerts, establish the new class of emergency government information alerts, require carriers to deliver alerts to small geographic areas, and facilitate WEA testing by state and local authorities and personnel training, an FCC official has told TRDaily. The order would also require providers to support alerts in Spanish.
A draft further notice of proposed rulemaking would seek information on what kinds of technologies could be used to further improve WEAs and explore whether alerts should be supported in languages other than English and Spanish. It also would solicit opinions on better ways to inform consumers about WEAs. —Paul Kirby, firstname.lastname@example.org