On October 19, 2023, the FCC released a Third Report and Order (Order) in Docket 15-91, adopting rules to improve Wireless Emergency Alerts. These include making WEA messages available in more than a dozen additional languages, including American Sign Language (ASL); adding increased functionality; and providing public information on where and how WEA is available. According to the Commission,
WEA is a tool for authorized federal, state, local, and Tribal government entities to geographically target alerts and warnings to the WEA-capable mobile devices of participating commercial mobile service providers’ subscribers. The Warning Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act establishes WEA as a voluntary system in which CMS Providers may elect to participate and gives the Commission authority to adopt “relevant technical standards, protocols, procedures and other technical requirements . . . necessary to enable commercial mobile service alerting capability for commercial mobile service providers that voluntarily elect to transmit emergency alerts.” Pursuant to this authority, the Commission has adopted requirements to prescribe WEA capabilities, WEA testing, and WEA election procedures. While participation by wireless providers is voluntary, those commercial mobile service providers that choose to offer the service (Participating CMS Providers) must adhere to the technical and operational requirements established by the Commission. (Order, at para.4).
Here is how WEA works: An alerting authority sends WEA a message using Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)-approved alert origination software in the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) to the FEMA-operated alert aggregator, the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). There, it is authenticated, validated and delivered.
Based on the Order, here are the new requirements for participating mobile providers:
Participating CMS Providers’ WEA-capable mobile devices are required to support templates in the 13 most spoken languages in the United States, based on the U.S. Census. These languages include Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Arabic, French, Korean, Russian, Haitian Creole, German, Hindi, Portuguese, and Italian. In addition, Participating CMS Providers’ WEA-capable mobile devices must
support templates in ASL.
The FCC directs its Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau (Bureau) to develop the specific implementation parameters for template-based multilingual alerting including the required template messages.
The Commission states that 30 months is a reasonable time to implement the templates for the 13 languages, as well as English and ASL. Next, to help people personalize threats that potentially affect them, the agency requires WEA-capable mobile devices to support the presentation of Alert Messages that link the recipient to a native mapping application on their mobile device to depict the recipient’s geographic position relative to the emergency incident. The map must include the following features: the overall geographic area, the contour of the area subject to the emergency alert within that geographic area, and the alert recipient’s location relative to these geographic areas. This applies only to devices that have access to a mapping application.
Participating CMS Providers must comply with this requirement 36 months from the rule’s publication in the Federal Register.
To allow alerting authorities to develop a better understanding of how WEA operates within their unique jurisdictions and circumstances and to engage in important public awareness exercises, the Commission will require Participating CMS Providers to support up to two end-to-end WEA tests, per county (or county equivalent), per year, that consumers receive by default.
The FCC states that it the rules it adopts in the Order would result in an industry-wide, one-time compliance cost of $42.4 million and an annually recurring cost of $422,500 to update the WEA standards and software. However, these costs are dwarfed by the lives and property saved by these rule changes. If these costs seem high, please remember that WEA is a voluntary program that CMS providers are free to opt out of.