Text-Based Emergency Alerts Could Soon Include More Characters, URLs

In this May 28, 201, ... ]

In this May 28, 201, ... ] David Mercer/AP

FCC adopted rules that would increase the amount of information emergency managers could send out.

Earlier this month, many New York residents' cellphones received a text alert—accompanied by an uncomfortably loud noise—asking for information about a bomb suspect who'd left a series of pipe and pressure cooker bombs in Dumpsters.

It was an effective alert—the suspect was captured hours later—but the Federal Communications Commission thinks future emergency alerts could include even more information, such as URLs or maps.

FCC adopted rules this week that could improve "wireless emergency alerts" by expanding the maximum number of characters; allowing the sender to include links and photos, and geo-targeting recipients, so alerts are only pushed out to those close to the incident. Wireless emergency alerts are used for weather events such as flood watches, missing children and other local crises.

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The rules would increase the maximum message length from 90 to 360 characters for 4G, LTE and any future wireless network; require wireless providers to support phone numbers and URLs in wireless alerts; and send the alerts to users in "more granular geographic areas," according to FCC. Providers would also be required to support Spanish-language alerts. 

The rules also attempt to make it easier for community and state emergency managers to test out alert systems.

"Vague directives in text about where to find more information about the suspect—as we saw in New York—are not good enough," FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a prepared statement during an open meeting this week. "As we move into the 5G future, we need to ensure that multimedia is available in all of our alert messages."

Commissioner Ajit Pai warned against "overalerting," or when people receive alerts with no connection to their location. "It undermines the effectiveness of the entire WEA system by causing people to tune out all alerts," he said in a statement.

During recent flooding in Louisiana, officials sent several flash flood alerts to residents who were later affected, but residents "ignored the messages because they had previously received flood alerts that only applied to homes located within a traditional flood zone," he said. An FCC council concluded people "assumed the alert was not for them since their home had never flooded before."

The adopted rules could put pressure on wireless providers to "add functions that are not based on what can reasonably be achieved with existing technology in realistic timelines," Commissioner Michael O'Reilly said in a statement, especially as "these solutions will need to go through the standards process, device and network development, testing, and be deployed into the marketplace."

FCC isn't the only group re-thinking emergency alerts; the Homeland Security Department has been developing a new flood notification system that would use water-level sensors to automatically trigger emergency alert notifications to mobile phone users nearby.