California Senators Press FCC on Wireless Alerts Failure During Fires

UPDATE Earlier this week, California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris sent a pointed and heartfelt letter to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regarding the shortcomings in the emergency alert systems, made evident during the (ongoing) northern California wildfires. While wildfires continue to blaze in the northern part of the state, with over 40 people dead and more than 40,000 people evacuated, this crisis has brought to light challenges with the emergency telecom system.

The senators called out to FCC chairman Ajit Pai that, “emergency services in Northern California were not able to transmit lifesaving WEA (Wireless Emergency Alert) messages, because of significant technical deficiencies in the system.” The importance of timely notifications via mobile devices “in a crisis like this…can be the difference between life and death.”   

The same WEA system is used for Amber Alerts and counts on cell towers within a specific area to transmit emergency messages to cell phone users, unless they’ve opted out. However, because of inadequacies in the system where precise geo-targeting was not enabled, local authorities in Sonoma and Napa counties, for example, were “caught in a bind between notifying individuals in imminent danger and risking mass panic.” Geo-targeting “is a feature that has been standard in mobile applications for years,” and even though the FCC approved the proposal enabling the precise geo-targeting of WEA warnings over a year ago, they’ve failed to issue final rules to wireless carriers.

The California senators have requested that the FCC respond to the inquiries presented in their letter by October 24.   They want to know whether the FCC has solicited feedback from emergency services in California and from those affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Jose regarding the WEA plus the timeline for the WEA rulemaking.

October 20, 2017

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