Emergency Alert Texts Are Getting a Much Needed Upgrade
On the morning of September 19, just shy of 36 hours after an improvised explosive device blew up in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, an alert popped up on the phones of area residents: “WANTED,” it stated, “Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9-1-1 if seen.”
Its sparingness seemed ill-suited to the situation. A name and age alone seemed likely to prompt more panicked Googling than actual awareness. (Rahami was soon found sleeping in the doorway of a bar in Linden, NJ; the proprietor recognized him from cable news footage). That brevity wasn’t by choice, though. It was a result of the limitations imposed on the Wireless Emergency Alert system, many of which the FCC just moved to alleviate, though the timeline is unclear.
“The FCC’s decision today is a win for public safety, it’s a win for the country as far as emergency learning capability,” says Ben Krakauer, director of Watch Command at NYC Emergency Management, the agency responsible for dispatching the city’s alerts, including after the Chelsea bombing. “The FCC approved a lot of what we’ve been asking them to.”
First mandated in 2008 and implemented in 2012, the emergency alert system is why everything from AMBER alerts to extreme weather warnings appear uninvited on your smartphone. You can opt out of most of them by digging into your smartphone’s Notifications settings, though alerts sent by the president will go through regardless.
The alerts have been an effective way to warn large groups of people about imminent nearby danger, but not nearly as effective as they could have been.
Take the Rahami alert. Currently, WEAs can only be 90 characters long, which explains the absence of detail. The Rahami WEA directed people to “media” for an image, because WEAs are text-only. It was sent in English only, because Spanish-language alerts aren’t required. Current WEA guidelines only geo-target at the county level, which means this one reached a broad swath of the public nowhere near Chelsea—or Linden, for that matter.
Today’s FCC actions will change that. WEA messages will quadruple in maximum length, hitting up to 360 characters on 4G networks. The FCC will require carriers to include embedded phone numbers and URLs in WEA alerts, meaning relevant photos will be just one tap away. Participating carriers will need to support Spanish-language alerts. And the geographic targeting will become more precise; Krakauer says he’ll be able to “draw a polygon on a map and light up a specific area,” rather than blasting it out to multiple zip codes.
That specificity doesn’t just benefit you; it’s also good for municipal emergency management teams.
“We’re always concerned about warning fatigue,” Krakauer says. “We don’t want people to get messages that are not important to them and for them to opt out of the system.”
The better news for both Krakauer and your smartphone sanity is that the FCC’s not done yet; while it will take months before any of the current changes are fully implemented, the agency is already looking to what else it can do. Those potential further improvements include expanding its non-English language capabilities beyond Spanish, narrowing geotargeting even further, and including thumbnail-size images within the messages, rather than links to images.
Even without those further-reaching changes, though, WEA is getting a significant boost. One hopes there’s no need for another alert like the one on September 19, but if there is, it stands to do plenty more good.
“It would have been a more effective message” had the new rules been in place, Krakauer says. “We wouldn’t have had to have people receive it and go search somewhere else for information. We would have been able to hand it to them directly.”