Geo-Targeting Capabilities Part of First Large Regional WEA Test

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Source: COG & Fairfax County, VA

Emergency managers in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area are preparing to test the Wireless Emergency Alert System (WEA) next week. A total of 20 jurisdictions — in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia — will simultaneously issue a test message to the public through the WEA system on April 5. It’s the first live WEA test in such a large region and the first to use geo-targeting capabilities. The outcome of this test could lead to similar tests in other regions of the country.

A smaller, more limited WEA test was conducted in the District on Inauguration Day, on the National Mall. But this new test, initiated by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, is much larger, according to Sulayman Brown, who’s coordinating the months-long planning effort. Brown is the Assistant Coordinator of Operations and Outreach Division in the Office of Emergency Management of Fairfax County, VA. He told Inside Towers, “We have a significant population in the National Capital region and we have a large amount of visitors. We thought this would be a good opportunity to test the system,” and learn from that. Officials hope to validate the effectiveness of WEA in notifying the public in the event of an emergency and also raise the public’s awareness of WEA.  

Indeed, officials believe more than five million people in the region could potentially receive the test message, including residents and visitors. Some people who may be traveling between jurisdictions during the test may receive multiple messages on their cell phone or other mobile device.

The National Capital Region plans to send a live test message through FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, the same platform used by broadcasters for the Emergency Alert System. WEA triggers a loud noise and a text-like message on mobile devices. The special tone and vibration will be repeated twice. Devices in Fairfax County, for example, will display this message: “A test of the Fairfax County Emergency Alert System. No action required.”

Currently, FCC rules do not allow end-to-end WEA tests to the public. The FCC provided a waiver of its rules to provide a “very secure” live test code for the event, according to Brown. He adds the FCC is working to adapt its rules so that other areas would be able to conduct such a regional test in the future without first needing to receive a waiver.

The first jurisdiction will send an alert at 10 a.m. and others will follow. The test should be over by 11 a.m. If real-world events necessitate the test being moved, the backup date is April 9. “If you’ll be out of the region, then you should not receive a test alert as you won’t be near local cell towers,” states a message to the public about the test by Fairfax County.

In 2019, WEA will support alert originator “opt-in” test capabilities, in addition to 360 characters and Spanish language, CTIA told Inside Towers.

The April 5 test date is the same day that the Senate Communications Subcommittee plans to hold a regional hearing in Hawaii regarding WEA and EAS concerning the false missile alert. In a letter from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments seeking the FCC waiver, they state: “[a]s recent events in Hawaii and California demonstrate, it is essential that the public be familiar with WEA, and that emergency managers be proficient in the use of WEA before the initiation of an actual alert is necessary” in the National Capital Region.

by Leslie Stimson, Washington Bureau Chief, Inside Towers

March 30, 2018                      

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