FCC changes how the Public Receives Emergency Alerts on their Phones

The FCC has stated that Emergency Alerts, the loud, often scary warning alerts that come up on your phone, TV, and radio, will be revamped, with a new “National Alerts” category that you won’t be able to opt-out of. The Emergency Alert System and Wireless Emergency Alerts can be used for anything from forest fire warnings to incoming ballistic missile announcements, though the existing system’s flaws have become apparent in recent years.

When a missile attack alert was issued in Hawaii in early 2018, it was clear that this was the situation. Residents were told to “take urgent shelter” from an incoming ballistic missile, and that “this is not a drill.”

It turned out, though, that while it wasn’t a drill, it wasn’t a true emergency either. The FCC investigated and discovered that the erroneous notice was caused by misunderstandings at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA). The FCC now claims that this has “highlighted the need to enhance these systems.”

FCC changes how the Public Receives Emergency Alerts on their Phones

As a result, an update will be released that clarifies how, why, and when alerts should be used. It will combine messages from the FEMA Administrator with the present “Presidential Alerts” category, which was initially tested in 2018 and has no opt-out support on devices that get Wireless Emergency Alerts. The new category will be called “National Alerts” and will be mandatory.

To prevent a repeat of the panic in Hawaii, the FCC is urging all states to establish State Emergency Communications Committees. They’ll be in charge of determining how to spread alerts on a state-by-state basis or reviewing how existing committees are currently doing so. There are also new rules for repeating alerts, as well as a reporting system for false emergency alerts to the FCC’s 24/7 Operations Center.

In a statement, Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC’s acting chairwoman, said of the reforms,

This is progress. However, there is still work to be done. With hurricane and wildfire season approaching, as well as the pandemic’s residual issues, we’ll be relying on emergency alert systems more than ever before. So, based on recommendations from our friends at FEMA, we’re launching a rulemaking today to consider additional ways we might improve alerting. Furthermore, on August 11th, we will conduct a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System and Wireless Emergency Alerts in order to gain additional input into how we might strengthen these life-saving systems.”

One of the main goals of the new policy is to ensure that, while people are kept informed about emergencies, they do not become overwhelmed and tune out too many alerts. The FCC is looking for feedback on the proposed changes, and there’s a whole host of questions it aims to collectively answer in the full amendment document.

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