Hurricane Harvey shows it is time for FCC to improve emergency alerts

Houses are seen submerged in flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey in Northwest Houston, Texas, U.S. August 30, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif - RC1E19D318B0
Editor's note:

Tom Wheeler served as the 31st Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 2013-2017

“Our thoughts and prayers are with those on the Gulf Coast,” the Federal Communications Commission said in a statement as Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. Empathy is nice, but action to help citizens and public safety would have been better. It’s time to stop the regulatory foot-dragging and require the mobile phone industry to use its technology’s capabilities to deliver safety alerts with the same accuracy that delivers a taxi and the same functionality that delivers video.

Five weeks before Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, the Harris County homeland security office implored the FCC to act upon previously proposed rules to implement life-saving technology on mobile phones. Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) offer public safety officials the ability to communicate much-needed safety information to mobile phones of affected individuals. Unfortunately, as Harris County officials pointed out, the voluntary program the FCC currently has in place for wireless service providers is sorely lacking in what it delivers.

The Obama FCC worked for over a year with wireless providers, emergency managers and communications engineers to identify capabilities that would improve emergency alerts. The wireless industry was reluctant, but in the end endorsed the consensus findings regarding WEA upgrades. In September 2016, the Obama FCC adopted an order to implement recommendations for better Amber Alerts, to provide more granular geographic targeting of messages, and to include “embedded references” such as links to URLs and emergency service phone numbers. The Commission also proposed additional requirements for follow-on action, such as multi-lingual and multi-media alerts.

Then the election happened.

Immediately after the installation of the Trump FCC, the mobile carriers filed a petition to stop the implementation of the earlier decision on WEA improvements that were strongly advocated by the Center for Missing and Exploited Children as well as public safety managers across the country. The Trump FCC magnified the failure of the current system by not acting on the WEA improvements proposed last September. The new FCC majority even removed wireless alerts form the charter of the public safety and industry working group that made the original recommendations.

These decisions have left citizens and emergency managers with no choice but to communicate using social media. Not only are such efforts confusing and inconsistent, but they also are easily spoofed.

That was why Harris County, the home of Houston, pleaded with the FCC to do something, just five weeks before Harvey. “Despite a robust record that included comments from wireless carriers, vendors and public safety officials across the country, as well as a robust CSRIC [the working group] process that advocated for these advancements, the Commission’s potential delay [of the 2016 proposal] …has left the public safety community feeling frustrated and disappointed.”

One of the improvements the FCC stopped was the wireless network’s capability to target messages to specific geographic areas. In its now-prescient July warning to the FCC, Harris County warned “an ordered evacuation for a hurricane or tropical storm would need to communicate different messages to different areas: inland populations should take shelter, while populations near the Gulf of Mexico should evacuate immediately. WEA cannot be used by Harris County for this purpose today, because it is not able to target geographic areas accurately enough to make sure that distinct emergency instructions are being received by geographically adjacent groups.”

Wireless companies are increasingly selling advertising that triggers when a user enters a specific area, but the Trump FCC wouldn’t require the phone companies to deliver a safety alert like they deliver an ad.

The Harris County letter went on to support another provision the Obama FCC proposed: that WEA messages support the incorporation of hyperlinks to other information, including multimedia. Recalling the New York City bomber and how public safety officials had his photo but couldn’t distribute it to people’s phones, Harris County observed that in natural disasters the ability to send non-text information was equally important. For instance, “evacuation maps for geo-targeted areas could be sent directly to the user.” Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing could also be alerted by the video display of a message in American Sign Language.

Mobile phone providers are always promoting the use your phone for video and other advanced services. But the Trump FCC has been unwilling to follow through on the requirements that these same capabilities be made available to those responsible for protecting lives and to individual citizens.

If the Obama FCC regulations and recommendations were in effect, geo-targeting could deliver the precise message to specific audiences; those messages could contain links to maps and other important information; and the ability to link with users would allow the collection of information from victims, providing a rapid triage among survivors and targeting the delivery of rescue and other services. Instead, in Houston, victims overloaded the 911 system and public safety officials had to resort to social media.

The wireless industry has supported the Trump FCC’s decision to walk away from any further public safety WEA requirements. Such regulation would “pose technical and economic challenges” the industry’s trade association, CTIA, said in their lobbying of the Commission. The industry, and apparently the FCC leadership, appear to favor passing the buck to the device manufacturers. That solution, of course, brings a whole new set of problems including the exhaustion of the device’s battery at the very time when the user needs extended battery life.

The Trump FCC talks a great deal of the importance of cost-benefit analysis to its decisions. The September 2016 proposal showed the public benefits outweighed whatever costs there were for mobile carriers. As Harris County’s letter pointed out, ignoring public safety’s recommendations in favor of undue sensitivity to the costs that might be imposed on mobile carriers puts American citizens at risk precisely when they are most vulnerable. This isn’t some abstract ideological principle, but something that threatens lives. With Harvey recovery estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars, and with even one loss of life too many, the cost-benefit case for the proposed improvements to Wireless Emergency Alerts is clear.

The Congress created the FCC to ensure our vital communications networks can survive not only ordinary and routine hazards, but also extraordinary disasters. The FCC has a responsibility to harness technology that is already being used for commercial purposes to enable emergency personnel and to support citizens in their time of need. If the Trump FCC had listened to the public safety professionals rather than the industry, mobile operators would have been busy implementing potentially life-saving capabilities.

While “thoughts and prayers” are comforting, it is not enough for officials responsible for public safety to send prayers after the fact. The responsibility of regulators includes doing everything in their power to protect lives and facilitate the efforts of local emergency organizations.
The FCC must learn from what happened in Hurricane Harvey. Harris County’s plea won’t help them this time, but if the FCC acts on their requests citizens and communities across the nation could be ready the next time.