Inside the Decades-Long Fight for Better Emergency Alerts
More than 20 years later, Tom Wheeler can still remember the sound that several thousand tons of aluminum train make when they crash into an abandoned vehicle.
Wheeler, who would eventually serve as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under President Obama, was at the time working on the opposite end of the regulatory spectrum, as CEO of the cell phone lobbying group, CTIA. He was sitting in the office of then-FCC chairman Reed Hundt. On the desk between them sat an old reel-to-reel tape recorder.
Hundt hit play, and urged Wheeler to listen closely. It was a recorded 9-1-1 call, in which a frantic woman reported being stuck in her car on the railroad tracks. She wasn’t sure of her exact location; she tried her best to describe her surroundings instead. Then came the train whistle. The woman rushed out of her car, moments before the train collided with it.
“Reed turns to me and says, ‘We’re going to solve that problem. Your technology has got the ability to be located, and we’re going to solve that,’” Wheeler remembers. And he agreed. He just didn’t realize how long it would take to do it.
Location, Location, Location
Years later, FCC pass a rule in 1998, backed by the CTIA, that would require all wireless carriers to enable location tracking for 9-1-1 purposes. That landmark decision kickstarted a decades-long domino effect in which location-tracking abilities inside devices rapidly improved, relying first on the location of cellular towers and, eventually, on GPS. The technology advanced to the point where, today, your Uber driver not only knows what block you’re on, but whether to pick you up on the north or south side of the street.
And yet, while the app economy has profited handsomely from these developments, they’ve gone woefully underutilized in emergency scenarios, particularly as it pertains to wireless emergency alerts, those push notifications that tell you when a flood or wildfire is heading your way. That’s partly because wireless carriers and smartphone manufacturers have lobbied extensively against new forms of regulation.
Earlier this month, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced the commission would move forward with an Obama-era order calling for wireless carriers to pinpoint emergency alerts down to the cellular tower level. Until recently, these alerts have targeted entire counties, an area so vast that, typically, people either receive alerts that are irrelevant to them, or emergency managers forgo alerts altogether—with potentially disastrous consequences. The alerts will also include embeddable links that can redirect people to additional information.
For public safety and communications experts, including Wheeler, these upgrades represent a crucial step in a multiyear battle with the cell phone industry.
“It is great the FCC has announced they’re going to do something,” Wheeler says. “Too bad it took tragedies to get that to happen.”
Sonoma County stretches for 1,768 square miles. When wildfires swept wine country this fall, emergency managers had a choice: Send alerts to all of its roughly 500,000 citizens, or don’t, to avoid mass panic and roads clogged with an unnecessary number of evacuees. They opted against. The fires engulfed the area, killing more than a dozen people in Sonoma alone. Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki told the San Francisco Chronicle she ran out of her home in a bathrobe after waking up to find her house on fire.
“There’s been a steady stream of stories about individuals in Sonoma County whose first signal they had to get out of the house right now was from a neighbor or a police officer coming to the house, or from the embers,” says Retired Admiral David Simpson, former chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. After the wildfires, California senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein co-authored a letter urging Pai to update geotargeting requirements for emergency alerts.
Hurricane Harvey’s historic flooding confronted Harris County, Texas with a similar decision in August. In fact, weeks before Harvey touched down in Texas, one Harris County official warned the FCC that the local government rarely uses wireless emergency alerts, because “it does not want to potentially alert the entire county when a WEA message may only pertain to a certain portion of the county.”
But while this year’s series of natural disasters painfully illustrate the need for more sophisticated targeting, the FCC and the wireless industry have known about the problem for years. According to Retired Admiral Jamie Barnett, who preceded Simpson at the FCC, the agency saw the potential for smartphones to improve emergency alerts as early as 2009, just two years after the iPhone debuted. “Even back then we knew that geotargeting could be done much better,” Barnett says. And yet, he notes, the wireless industry proved to be “reluctant partners.”
‘If you can hail a ride using that part of the phone or order a pizza, of course we should be able to use that for something as worthy as microtargeting alerts.’
Retired Admiral David Simpson
Participating in the wireless emergency alert system is voluntary, but if carriers do agree to participate—and all of the major ones do—the FCC holds them to certain requirements. Time and again, the industry has argued that those requirements are technically unworkable. Apple has resisted device-based geo-targeting, urging the FCC to “carefully assess the feasibility of this approach.” AT&T, meanwhile, has warned the FCC that “imposing, and enforcing, unrealistic duties at exorbitant cost will jeopardize future voluntary commitments,” by the company and others in the industry.
The CTIA has pushed back against the inclusion of clickable links, and against proposed FCC rules that would require multimedia content, including photos, to be embedded in alerts. In a petition to the order, the association called the changes “unnecessary and burdensome mandates that have not been studied,” and suggested that the industry’s voluntary participation hangs in the balance.
Their fear, according to Matt Gerst, associate vice president of regulatory affairs at CTIA, is that local emergency alert managers are already inadequately trained in deploying alerts efficiently. Adding additional media to alerts, he argues, could do more harm than good. “We were concerned about things like network congestion,” he says. “All of a sudden you can have a lot of people downloading a lot of data.”
And yet, in the wake of recent, high-profile failures of the existing system, the five major carriers—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular, and Verizon—have all begun supporting links in alerts, and allowing emergency managers to more narrowly target those alerts.
“People’s continuing experience with location services in the commercial arena really is raising the expectations legitimately,” Simpson says. “As consumers get greater functionality and wireless carriers make money on that functionality, if they don’t also do the right thing for public safety, they’re going to get called out on that.”
This also means, he argues, that the FCC could go even further in pushing wireless carriers and device manufacturers to improve upon emergency alerts. By utilizing the same triangulating technology that Uber uses to figure out exactly where you’re standing on a crowded corner, carriers could, say, pinpoint where potential victims are inside a building in the event of a mass shooting. Emergency responders could then send targeted instructions to people in one part of a building and a different message to people in another.
“If you can hail a ride using that part of the phone or order a pizza, of course we should be able to use that for something as worthy as microtargeting alerts,” Simpson says. The FCC has also floated proposed rules that would require carriers to send alerts in different languages and support multimedia alerts.
Of course, none of these improvements will matter unless local governments decide to use them. According to Simpson, only 20 percent of local jurisdictions today are registered with the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System today. That’s one reason why Gerst says alerts are often used ineffectively—or not used at all—because community leaders remain unaware of how the technology can be used.
Now that the FCC has encoded these capabilities into its rules, it will be up to local governments to use them to their advantage. They have fewer excuses than ever for leaving their constituencies stuck on a proverbial railroad track, the next train barreling down.