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FCC aims to improve phone emergency alerts after recent bombings

Wireless subscribers in the US have been seeing occasional emergency alert notifications in recent years. These messages can make the public aware of imminent danger from natural disasters or terrorist attacks, or simply help law enforcement find a missing child. However, after the recent bombings in New York and New Jersey, there’s pressure to improve these alerts, which are currently woefully inadequate. Luckily, the FCC already has a plan.

A number of government agencies including FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security started designing the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) in 2007. Participation in the system is not mandatory for wireless carriers, but the big four US carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon — have all added support. The limited functionality of these messages was painfully obvious recently when police were seeking Ahmad Khan Rahami, who is suspected of setting the bombs that exploded in several areas of New York and New Jersey.

The WEA message sent to subscribers in the region on September 19th read, “WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9-1-1 if seen.” See? It’s not very helpful. It doesn’t say what Rahami is suspected of, if he’s dangerous, and it certainly doesn’t have a picture. Rahami was eventually found by police sleeping in the doorway of a bar after the owner recognized the man. The emergency alert was not a factor in the capture.

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Many found the WEA text confusing and it lacked any information that would have made Rahami easier to find. WEA messages are limited to 90 characters, even less than a traditional SMS. They also can’t include multimedia or embedded hyperlinks. Now, the FCC is looking to improve the WEA messages with some long overdue changes.

Under the FCC proposal, WEA would be able to support as many as 360 characters as well as embedded links and media. These features will only be supported on LTE networks, but the majority of wireless subscribers are connected to LTE these days. The upgraded system would also include narrower geo-targeting of subscribers, allowing messages to be pushed only to those who would benefit. The FCC actually floated the idea late last year, but in the wake of the bombings, it has voted to implement it.

The changes will require carriers to deploy a number of new technologies as part of WEA in the coming year. However, many of these features exist in standard SMS, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to reach compliance for WEA.

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