Federal Communications Commission Votes on New Rules for Early-Warning Systems

The Federal Communications Commission adopted new rules today to “improve the geographic targeting of Wireless Emergency Alerts,” which deliver warnings and information to the public via their cellphones during an emergency. According to a release from the FCC (see below), wireless provides will be required to “deliver WEA alerts in a more geographically precise manner so that the alerts reach the communities impacted by an emergency without disturbing others.”

The new rule goes into effect on Nov. 30, 2019—or, two fire seasons from now.

The move dovetails with state-level action on the WEA front that’s being driven by the North Bay delegation to Sacramento, via Senate Bill 833. 

The bill sets out to “provide for a red alert system designed to issue and coordinate alerts following an evacuation order,” according to the legislative legal counsel’s memo on it.

It would require the state Office of Emergency Services  to set up a red alert system that would “incorporate a variety of notification resources and developing technologies that may be tailored to the circumstances and geography of the underlying evacuation, as appropriate.”

The bill would require a local government agency or state agency that uses the federal system “to alert a specified area of an evacuation order to use the term ‘red alert’ in the alert and notify OES of the alert.”

The legislative analysis notes that “the WEA system allows customers who own certain wireless telephones and other enabled mobile devices to receive geographically targeted, text-like messages alerting them of imminent threats to safety in their area. The WEA system was established in 2008 pursuant to the federal Warning, Alert, and Response Network (WARN) Act and became operational in 2012. Since then, over 21,000 WEA alerts have been issued.”

The WEA was not activated to send evacuation alerts during the North Bay fires. It did recently send out an errant notification that Hawaii was about to get nuked. Whoops.

SB 833 bill would require the OES to “both ensure that each emergency management office within a county or city is a registered WEA operator and has up-to-date WEA software and equipment,” by July 2019. “The bill also would require OES to ensure that emergency management personnel trained on the WEA system receive yearly training in WEA software and equipment operation.” The state would appropriate funds to implement the provisions of the bill in localities around California.

“If this is the new normal,” says State Sen. Bill Dodd, a sponsor of SB 833, “then we’d better get it together.”

Dodd says he’s open to other low-tech systems to warn residents of imminent danger, such as air-raid sirens, but that given the lumpy topography in the North Bay, “I’m not sure that is good for every area. Brand new-technology doesn’t have to be the answer in every case, and not every county is going to have the same standards. We have to think about air-raid sirens,” he adds, noting that its up to localities to pick and choose between hi- and low-tech options “to create the most sustainable and dynamic emergency alert system.”

A report in Monday’s Press Democrat by Julie Johnson focused on a meeting yesterday between the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and county emergency services chief Christopher Helgren. As Johnson reported, Helgren reiterated to the BOS that his office didn’t activate the federal WEA system out of a concern that it could create panic because the system, as currently deployed, sends out messages “too broadly.”

The FCC vote today would require that wireless providers send targeted messages to areas under siege from various disasters, be they floods, fires, earthquakes or tsunamis. During the North Bay fires, SoCoAlert and Nixle did provide emergency information to people who had opted-in to those programs, which require a cellphone. Dodd says those systems “have been solid in the past,” but the time’s come for an opt-out system that’s uniform across the state. “If you don’t want to be notified of a major disaster,” he says, “that’s your business.”

As for those air-raid sirens, Helgren’s apparently not a fan. Johnson reported that “Supervisors pushed back when Helgren said he had already ruled out warning systems such as neighborhood sirens, sending a strong signal they and the public want the opportunity to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of warning systems such as neighborhood sirens.”

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