FCC Improves Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) - Great News for Public Safety

Picture of Todd Piett By Todd Piett


Yesterday the FCC approved a notice of proposed rule making that will drastically improve the existing Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system.  Below I’ve summarized the changes and timelines in which they are to occur.  Remember that these new rules are placed on the entities regulated by the FCC (the wireless carriers), so support for the solution by other involved parties may lag those timelines (although I would expect most involved vendors to be able to easily meet these timelines).  All dates referenced are from the time the ruling is posted in the federal register.  The highlights below heavily plagiarize the ruling at https://apps.fcc.gov/edocs_public/recentReleases.do

FCC Commissioner Wheeler Addressing Questions after the 29 September 2016 hearing

Within 30 days

Use of the WEA signal for PSAs.  The FCC lifted restrictions on the use of the unique WEA attention signal to raise public awareness.  In other words, the tone can now be used for PSAs.  PSAs must make clear that the signal it is being used in the context of the PSA, “and for the purpose of educating the viewing or listening public about the functions of their WEA-capable mobile devices and the WEA program,” including by explicitly stating that the WEA attention signal is being used in the context of a PSA for the purpose of educating the public about WEA.

Within 60 days

More granular notification message targeting.  WEA geo-targeting requirements are narrowed from the current county-level standard to a polygon-level standard.  Specifically, a Participating CMS Provider must transmit any Alert Message that is specified by a geocode, circle, or polygon to an area that best approximates the specified geocode, circle, or polygon.  The Commissions goal is to eventually adopt even more granular, handset-based geo-targeting requirements that would match the target area provided by an alert originator; however, they recognize the work that needs to be done to fully enable this capability so were careful in their wording to not put specific location accuracy requirements in the targeting.

Availability of Logs.  Currently alert senders have no visibility into downstream message delivery or whether the messages were accepted by the CMS providers.  Participating CMS Providers are now required to make their alert logs available to the Commission and FEMA upon request.  Participating CMS Providers are also required to make alert logs available to emergency management agencies that offer confidentiality protection at least equal to that provided by the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) upon request, but only insofar as those logs pertain to alerts initiated by that emergency management agency.  The FCC is encouraging, but not requiring, Participating CMS Providers to work with alert origination software vendors to automate transmission of alert log data to emergency managers’ alert origination software.  The logs will provide time stamps to verify the alert messages are received by the CMS provider alert gateway and their status (i.e. received, retransmitted, or rejected along with reason code).  These logs are to be maintained for 12 months.  There are some exception to the 60 day availability, with some providers having up to 2 years to provide access to the logs.

Within 1 year

Support for URLS in WEA messages.  The need to support links to follow up information was highlighted by most respondents to the FCCs’ request for information as the highest priority.  Examples include instructional data or photos of suspects which could be hosted on a web page accessible through the link.  Participating CMS Providers must support the transmission of embedded URLs and phone numbers in WEA Alert Messages.

Within 2 years

Support for Spanish Language Alert Messages.  Participating CMS Providers must support the transmission of Spanish-language Alert Messages.  Spanish-language WEA Alert Messages would be displayed on, and only on, WEA-capable mobile devices where the subscriber has specified Spanish as their preferred language.

Within 30 Months

Allowable Character length expanded to 360 characters.  WEA supported character length for Alert Messages is expanded from 90 to 360 characters for 4G-LTE and future networks.  The diagram below shows how both legacy networks (which only support 90 characters) and those networks supporting 360 characters are supported.

New Class of Allowable Message types.  Previously, the use of WEA was limited to specific scenarios which severely hampered local public safety agency use of the system.  The FCC created a new, fourth classification of Alert Message, “Public Safety Message.”  A Public Safety Message is defined as “an essential public safety advisory that prescribes one or more actions likely to save lives and/or safeguard property.”

WEA Character Length

Message prioritization.  The intent of this ruling is to ensure messages delivery is prioritized on the device, but not to disrupt an ongoing 9-1-1 call.  WEA-capable mobile devices are to present WEA Alert Messages as soon as they are received.   Devices that are engaged in active voice or data sessions on 4G-LTE networks will receive and prominently present WEA Alert Messages as soon as they are available, whereas WEA-capable mobile devices engaged in active voice or data sessions on legacy networks will not be able to receive available Alert Messages until the active voice or data session concludes.  Participating CMS Providers can provide their subscribers with the option to specify how the vibration cadence and attention signal should be presented when a WEA Alert Message is received during an active voice or data session in a manner that does not “preempt” it.  Pursuant to the ATIS/TIA Mobile Device Behavior Specification, a “momentary interruption of a voice all or active data session, such as a brief visual, audible and/or vibration indication that a CMAS message has been received, is not considered preemption so long as the voice call/data session is not terminated and facilities to support that voice call or data session are not seized or released.

Support for Testing.  The lack of the ability to test WEA was a hindrance to wider adoption.  Testing will now be supported on an “opt-in” basis.  Unlike other Alert Messages, consumers will not receive State/Local WEA Tests by default.  Participating CMS Providers should provide their subscribers with the option to receive State/Local WEA Tests, and subscribers would have to affirmatively select this option in order to receive these test messages.  In this model, public safety officials can simply opt-in to receive the test messages and then send messages only to those devices.

Tying WEA to EAS.  The FCC amended their rules to make it clear that periodic interface testing must include the testing of its public television broadcast-based backup.  Pursuant to this framework, FEMA would initiate a test of the broadcast-based C-interface backup by sending a test message through that infrastructure to the CMS Provider Alert Gateway, which would respond by returning an acknowledgement of receipt of the test message to the FEMA Gateway.

Still under consideration

The FCC specifically called out several areas of importance that they recognize still need to be addressed:

  • Multimedia.  To allow development of standards for multimedia in the swiftest timeframe possible, the FCC is allowing (and encouraging) voluntary, early prototyping of certain multimedia capabilities in Public Safety Messages
  • More granular location targeting.  The FCC is expected to rule on this in the future.  Providers are being given the opportunity to test various technology approaches.

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Written by Todd Piett

Todd Piett joined Rave in 2005 and today runs the global organization that has its technology deployed at thousands of colleges, universities, businesses and communities. Prior to joining Rave, Todd was responsible for launching new products for Unica Corporation where he helped drive their successful IPO. Previously, Todd was VP of Product and Marketing for iBelong, a portal provider targeting affinity organizations and a Program Manager at Dell Computer where he launched Dell’s branded ISP. Todd graduated with honors from the United States Military Academy at West Point and holds an MBA from Harvard Business School. After graduation from West Point he served 7 years in the US Army as an aviation officer.


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