It happened again.
Less than a month after Hawaii emergency officials sent an erroneous missile warning to the public and just hours before Congress was set to hold a hearing on how to prevent such incidents, the National Weather Service and private firm AccuWeather botched a tsunami warning test across the entire Eastern seaboard, parts of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.
A previously scheduled test by the NWS was reportedly pushed out to users of the AcceWeather app as a real tsunami alert around 8:30 am. The NWS said it is investigating the incident.
The latest botched emergency alert set an uneasy tone at a hearing of the House Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee. In addition to adding urgency to training and procedure reforms, the recent spate of incidents have led many lawmakers to focus on new, emerging technologies that could improve the accuracy of warnings and bolster public trust.
“I am very concerned that [these incidents] will result in a lack of response to actual events and could cause individuals to opt out of receiving life-saving messages entirely,” said Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Dan Donovan, R-NY, speaking at the Feb. 6 hearing.
The first effort underway involves improving the geographic accuracy of emergency alerts. During the Chelsea bombing in 2016, the New York City Emergency Management Department sent out three messages to the Chelsea neighborhood to alert individuals to shelter in place and to solicit the public’s help in locating the suspect. However, reports showed that the messages were received far outside the target area.
As a result, the FCC voted last week to require participating wireless carriers to deliver alerts to 100 percent of the target area identified by the alert originator with no more than one-tenth of a mile overshoot by November 30, 2019.
“This kind of accuracy will help to deter warning fatigue,” Donovan said.
The FCC’s recent action also requires that alert messages remain available in a consumer-accessible format on wireless devices for 24 hours after receipt, or until the consumer chooses to delete the message, which will enable the public to better review emergency information. The commission also adopted enhanced consumer notification requirements at point of sale, to ensure consumers understand the benefits of enhanced geo-targeting and the extent to which the wireless provider offers enhanced geo-targeting on its network and devices.
Perhaps the biggest development is the pending rollout of Next Generation TV, also known as ATSC 3.0, on a voluntary, market-driven basis. Next Gen TV will offer a new and improved method to provide consumers with vital information during emergencies.
With the advanced alerting capabilities of Next Gen TV, a television broadcaster will be able to simultaneously deliver geo-targeted, rich media alerts to an unlimited number of enabled fixed, mobile and handheld devices across their entire coverage area. For example, rather than simply running an Emergency Alert System alert or crawl over regularly scheduled broadcast programming for an entire market’s viewing audience, a Next Gen TV signal could wake up enabled devices and reach the entire universe of devices within its television signal contour.
But there are challenges and potential roadblocks to ensuring this technology reaches all citizens, said Sam Matheny, Chief Technology Officer at the National Association of Broadcasters.
“I’m referring to relocating – or repacking – nearly 1,000 broadcast television stations in the final and most complicated phase of the broadcast spectrum incentive auction,” he said. “Additionally … this will also negatively impact more than seven hundred FM radio stations and countless low-power television and translator stations that are critical to bringing service to rural America. Quite simply, if a television or radio station is forced off the air for any period of time due to circumstances outside of their control, it will diminish the ability of the public to receive critical EAS information.”
According to the FCC, the funds originally set aside to reimburse broadcasters for relocating spectrum are woefully inadequate. The estimated $1 billion funding shortfall is actually preventing stations from making the advanced purchases required to complete their moves in a timely fashion, said Metheny. “In fact, according to the most recent quarterly status reports filed with the FCC, 11 percent of stations changing channels are already behind, despite their best efforts to complete their moves,” he said.
Metheny also took aim at the second largest smartphone developer in the world – Apple. While the radio broadcast industry has developed marketplace partnerships with wireless phone manufacturers and providers to turn on – or at least not deactivate – FM receivers that are already installed in devices, Apple’s latest iPhones present a problem.
“Our market efforts have been successful with one very notable exception—Apple,” Matheny said. “We believe Apple should be encouraged to activate the FM tuner in future models of their iPhone as it will improve people’s access to vital information in times of disaster.”
In recent public statements, however, Apple has remained defiant of both FCC and NAB requests to keep FM radio capabilities in its phones – a capability that ended with the iPhone 6s.
“Apple cares deeply about the safety of our users, especially during times of crisis and that’s why we have engineered modern safety solutions into our products,” the company said in a statement. “iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 models do not have FM radio chips in them nor do they have antennas designed to support FM signals, so it is not possible to enable FM reception in these products.”