FCC: Disaster alerts on phones must up their game

The Federal Communications Commission updates standards to ensure that only people affected by natural disasters and other emergencies get the messages.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
2 min read
FCC commissioners Brendan Carr, Mignon Clyburn, Ajit Pai, Michael O'Rielly and Jessica Rosenworcel.

Left to right: FCC commissioners Brendan Carr, Mignon Clyburn, Ajit Pai, Michael O'Rielly and Jessica Rosenworcel. The commission wants to be sure emergency alerts on phones do what they're supposed to.


The Federal Communications Commission will require emergency alerts sent to cell phones during a crisis to be more geographically precise.

At its meeting Tuesday, the agency approved an item ensuring that when wireless providers send messages through the Wireless Emergency Alert system, the alerts are more targeted to individuals affected by the natural disaster or crisis in question.

In some cases, authorities have been reluctant to issue alerts because the messages were being broadcast over a wider area than necessary. These officials said they didn't want to warn people for no reason or inundate them with irrelevant alerts.

"Overbroad alerting can cause public confusion, lead some to opt out of receiving alerts altogether, and, in many instances, complicate rescue efforts by unnecessarily causing traffic congestion and overloading call centers," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said.

The system update arrives as the nation's emergency alert setup receives increased scrutiny. Earlier this month, an official in Hawaii mistakenly warned millions of people about an incoming ballistic missile, causing widespread panic. The false alert wasn't corrected for 38 minutes.

At Tuesday's meeting, FCC officials also presented preliminary results of an investigation that points to a mix of human error and poorly designed interfaces as the cause of the incident. The person responsible for the alert misinterpreted instructions and thought the alert was real. The FCC's inquiry is still ongoing.

The commission's effort to make the wireless emergency alerts more geographically precise began before the Hawaii mishap. The FCC considered the item at the urging of California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, who told the commission that some local authorities in their state were reluctant to send out alerts during last year's deadly wildfires.

The FCC also adopted updates to the system in 2016 that require carriers to let messages be sent in multiple languages. It also increased the character limit for messages from 90 to 360. And messages will be able to support hyperlinks and multimedia. Those changes won't take effect until May 2019. 

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