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Disputed alert system gets upgrade after Wine Country fires

Time:2017-11-06 00:59wine - Red wine life health Click:

Wine country After gets Fires

All wireless carriers will be required to more specifically target the areas where cell phones would receive Wireless Emergency Alerts, or WEAs. Sonoma County officials said they did not send such an alert as the fires raged late on the night of Oct. 8 because it would have hit phones all across the county, possibly causing panic and traffic jams that would have blocked people from getting in and out of the area.

They are among a number of local emergency officials who have found fault with the WEA system since it was put in place in 2012, including some who have declined to adopt it at all. Only about a third of all counties in the U.S. have access to the alert system, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Wine Country Fires

This past week, the Federal Communications Commission issued a rule requiring the nation’s big five wireless carriers to implement upgrades to the Amber Alert-style warnings that the agency had first ordered in September of 2016 but had been stalled due to industry objections.

The action followed a series of disasters, including three hurricanes that ravaged Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, and the Wine Country fires, in which 43 people died, more than half of them in Sonoma County.

After The Chronicle reported on Sonoma’s decision not to send a wireless alert, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris of California wrote to the FCC to complain about the delay.

Months earlier, long before Hurricane Harvey unleashed devastating floods on Houston, county officials there had pleaded with the FCC to upgrade the system, warning that more precise targeting was vital to assisting evacuation in a hurricane.

“It’s amazing that it took four disasters to make this come about,” said retired Adm. David Simpson, who was chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau during the Obama administration, which developed the new rule. “It should be an embarrassment to the commission, but it’s done.”

Even as the new rule takes effect, though, wireless carriers say many local officials do not understand or properly use the existing alert system. Emergency responders, meanwhile, are pushing for more improvements, in particular using phones’ geo-location technology to target WEAs even more precisely.

Disputed alert system gets upgrade after Wine Country fires

As currently programmed, Wireless Emergency Alerts — text-like messages accompanied by a unique loud sound and vibration — can be sent to most cell phones in an area during potentially life-threatening emergencies by pinging nearby cell towers. Every phone targeted by the alert receives it unless its user has opted to block it.

The main problem: By covering such large areas, the alerts can warn the wrong people to do the wrong thing, or possibly induce “alert fatigue,” leading some to ignore what might be a lifesaving warning.

Public safety officials said the revised system should allow targeting within a tenth of a mile.

The maximum length of a WEA text will increase from 90 to 360 characters, and can include links and phone numbers to direct people to more information. Also, a new class of “public safety messages” can convey recommended actions, such as boiling water or going to a shelter. And carriers must support transmission of the alerts in Spanish.

Some public safety officials, though, want further refinements that would take advantage of geo-location technology, which phone users already use daily to determine exactly where they are. Such a system would allow emergency managers to target each cell phone in only a designated emergency area. That would eliminate the potential for alerting too many or too few people.

But wireless service providers and device makers are putting up stiff resistance.

After President Trump was elected, promising to reduce government regulations, the trade association CTIA, which represents large wireless carriers such as Verizon and AT&T, effectively blocked implementation of the September 2016 upgrades, arguing that incorporating embedded links and phone numbers in alerts would congest networks.

“The election happened, and a very powerful lobby asked that this not be made a priority,” said Simpson, the former FCC public safety director.

Only last week did the FCC decide that the industry’s objections had no merit.

Justin Cole, spokesman for CTIA, said the industry works closely with public safety officials and government agencies “to maximize the proven lifesaving benefits of Wireless Emergency Alerts” and “has made additional enhancements to the alert system, including embedded references and geo-targeting below the county level, so even more lives can be saved.”

Sonoma County officials who made the decision not to send a mass alert on the night the Wine Country fires began said they decided to focus instead on notifying and evacuating specific areas. They turned to other cell phone alert systems that county residents must sign up for, which could reach only a small portion of the population, and used a “reverse 911” system to call landline phones in unincorporated areas. First responders also went door to door warning people in danger.

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