Together: Moving WEA Forward a Tenth of a Mile at a Time

COVID-19 WEA message sent to Harris County, TX residents on November 17, 2020.

Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) have come along way. Established in 2008 by the Warning, Alert and Response Network Act, WEA became operational in 2012. It is a unique public-private partnership: the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency working with the wireless industry, on a voluntary basis, to provide actionable emergency information to the public.

The state of technology in 2012 left much room for improvement in keeping up with the latest capabilities we are now accustomed to on our mobile devices. I recently had the opportunity to chair a working group that brought together government, telecommunications, academic, technology and innovation leaders to make these needed changes. That collaboration led to sweeping recommendations to make WEA more resilient, robust and relevant.

Adoption of those recommendations in early 2018 by the FCC, under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai, resulted in the single greatest improvement in years to our nation’s alerts and warnings infrastructure.

The obstacles to making WEA successful were numerous. WEA 1.0 had significant drawbacks from its inception that reflected the early days of the smartphone era. With messages limited to just 90 characters, in English only, it was functional if not particularly informative or accessible. The biggest drawback, certainly in the opinion of emergency managers, was the notorious unreliability of the geo-targeting function. Message overshoot and undershoot meant that warnings had the potential to alert far larger populations than were actually in danger, or far fewer. Neither is an acceptable outcome when life-safety is the issue.

Successive iterations of the FCC’s Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council (CSRIC), which advises the Commission on topics like wireless communication issues, made significant progress in the late 2010’s. Long negotiations and multiple reports to the FCC urging new standards led to WEA 2.0, a massive system upgrade in December of 2019.

The enhancements we championed and adopted as rules by the FCC allow for 360-character messages, the inclusion of hyperlinks, messaging in Spanish, and a “Public Safety” message category that opened WEA up to broader usage.

These have been critical to life-safety in our recent rash of floods, hurricanes, wildfires, civil unrest and now COVID-19.

Enhanced geo-targeting accuracy was also addressed in WEA 2.0. The new FCC rules specify that wireless providers ensure emergency messages are delivered to the entire area specified by the alerting agency with no more than 1/10 of a mile overshoot. Unfortunately, the accuracy of geo-targeting remains a work in progress.

The Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management has been a contributing partner through all stages of WEA’s development. We strongly support the sweeping changes that came about last year. We are grateful for the partnership of our federal partners and private industry in rolling out these enhancements. But we also recognize that significant work remains if WEA is to become the alerting system our residents need and deserve. And we are not the only ones.

In September 2020, Ajit Pai, the Chairman of the FCC, sent letters to the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS), Qualcomm, and CTIA. Respectively, these organizations set the technical standards, manufacturer the chipsets for most mobile devices, and represent the wireless communications industry. Pai’s letters called on the telecomm community to refocus on some key questions: how many WEA capable devices are in the market? Will new chipsets support enhanced geo-targeting in 5G devices? What best practices have been developed supporting enhanced geo-targeting?

ATIS, Qualcomm and CTIA have risen to that challenge. It’s no surprise. They have been strong collaborators each step of the way.

Pai’s strategy and tactics are smart. Collaboration and partnership are at the core. Rather than admonish the wireless community or convening committees tasked to write multi-year studies, the chairman is asking questions that directly address the results of the work to improve the infrastructure that supports high accuracy geo-targeting. Since the issues aren’t controversial, and the technical barriers are low to nonexistent, all that remains is the will of the wireless community and all those involved in the complex WEA ecosystem. The questions are deceptively simple; the answers will reveal how committed we are to advancing enhanced geo-targeting.

In densely populated cities like New York or Chicago — or Houston — a tenth of a mile undershoot could mean that more than the population of Des Moines, around 220,000, doesn’t get a needed alert. Over-alerting by just a tenth of a mile can have serious impacts to public safety as residents react, perhaps badly, to warnings that don’t apply to them. We have seen, nationwide, an uptick in natural and man-made threats to life and property. With 83% of Americans now carrying smartphones, WEA is poised to be the go-to for emergency managers in more situations than ever before.

We need to get it right, and soon. Teamwork is the key in confronting the tech timeline.

In 2020, Harris County has used WEA multiple times to communicate the threat from COVID-19 to all 4.7 million residents of Harris County. We also used it to communicate a voluntary evacuation in the face of deadly tropical weather to a discrete and precisely targeted group of fewer than 50,000 coastal residents. WEA is the only tool that would allow us to communicate with both groups, regardless of whether they are registered for our alerts, follow us on social media, or happen to be watching traditional media. Public safety should not be exclusive to those with the right technology.

Other issues remain as well. Those speaking languages other than Spanish, as well as the deaf and hearing-impaired communities, are still left out of WEA. The addition of maps and graphics, while technically challenging, would negate some of the accessibility issues. Parts of the country are still languishing in 2G and 3G wireless, impacting the ability of millions of Americans to receive WEA 2.0 messaging. The work must and will continue.

We wholeheartedly support Chairman Pai’s effort to keep WEA a priority and the telecomm community’s commitment to stay on task with respect to accurate geo-targeting. Precise, accessible, and contextualized WEA alerts can, and should, be the “now” and not the “future.” Every emergency management agency in the nation, every jurisdiction, has a stake in bringing WEA across the finish line.

Pew Research Center (2019, June 12). Mobile Fact Sheet. Pew Research Center Internet & Technology. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/mobile/

Francisco Sanchez | @DisasterPIO

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