The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on Thursday to update and strengthen the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system, which sends public safety alerts to the American public, by expanding the maximum length of messages from 90 to 360 characters, enabling embedded links and phone numbers, and targeting more specific geographic areas.
Additionally, the updated rules will allow the system to support Spanish alerts and will create a new class of alerts termed “Public Safety Messages,” which will outline information such as emergency shelter locations and boiling water orders.
The FCC is also exploring ways to include thumbnail-sized pictures in alerts.
In a statement, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler commented, “How important is today’s item? NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill said it best in the closing line of his letter supporting today’s rules, ‘Lives are truly on the line.’ That’s as important as it gets, and that’s why I’m pleased the Commission is moving to improve Wireless Emergency Alerts.”
The recent bombings in New York and New Jersey exposed several shortcomings of the WEA system. In the aftermath of the bombings, millions of New Yorkers’ cell phones received the following alert:
WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9–1–1 if seen.
The alert came under fire for lacking useful information and racial profiling, since the message did not contain a picture of the bombing suspect. However, in a statement, FCC Commissioner also noted that WEA is a “life-saving tool” that played a crucial role in apprehending the suspect.
“In the wake of the recent bombing in Manhattan, the Wireless Emergency Alert system enlisted millions of New Yorkers to be the eyes and ears of law enforcement,” Clyburn said. “Thanks in large part to thisvaluable tool, the suspect was swiftly captured. This first of its kind message is a poignant example of the innovative ways WEA canbe utilized to help save lives.”
Clyburn added, “As the recent incidents in New York and New Jersey underscore, providing emergency managers with the ability to direct their communities to a comprehensive and authoritative resource in an emergency situation is a must.”
Given the importance of connectivity in emergency situations, in the aftermath of the bombings Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) called for the FCC to immediately modernize the WEA system. Specifically, the senator emphasized the need to include pictures and videos in messages.
“In light of the need to respond in real time to terror threats, we can’t afford to have an emergency wireless response system that is stuck in the 90’s. The bottom line is that in the era of Instagram, Facebook and SnapChat our Wireless Emergency Alert System needs to get as smart as our phones and be updated so it can deliver photos and other media that has information that can save lives,” said Schumer.