Three years after many of the nation’s wireless carriers joined a voluntary, wireless emergency alert (WEA) system that provides real-time information on storms, disasters and other occurrences of potential threat to subscribers, the FCC issued a rulemaking notice (NPRM) last Thursday laying out various proposals for improving the WEA system. Adopted unanimously by the FCC’s five commissioners, the NPRM corresponds with a report, approved last December by the FCC’s Communications, Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council, which recommended modification of the WEA rules to increase the number of characters displayed in WEA messages and more precise geo-targeting of WEA alerts.

 The NPRM seeks comment on proposals to (1) increase the length of WEA messages from 90 characters to 360, (2) include embedded phone numbers and URLs in the text of WEA messages, (3) enable WEA public safety advisories that include “boil water” recommendations and the locations of emergency shelters, and (4) require carriers to deliver targeted WEA messages to smaller geographic areas that are more directly impacted by the emergency situation at hand. In a news release accompanying the NPRM, the FCC said it would also seek input on other improvements that include “the technical feasibility of implementing multilingual and multimedia alerting” and “steps . . . to promote Americans’ participation in WEA, including options for personalizing the display and receipt of WEA messages.” The NPRM also outlines proposals to facilitate WEA testing by state and local government officials and the training of related personnel.

In press remarks, the FCC’s commissioners highlighted the importance of more localized WEA geo-targeting which, under current FCC rules, is limited to the county level. As FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proclaimed that “longer messages and more targeted geography mean a better [WEA] product,” Commissioner Mignon Clyburn explained that “we want WEA alerts to be much more localized” because, “otherwise, those who repeatedly get alerts that may not be relevant for them may one day actually ignore alerts that directly impact their health and safety.” While voicing support for the goals of the NPRM, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly reminded his colleagues of the “delicate balance between the obligations asked of participating wireless providers and their willingness to remain part of the voluntary system,” cautioning: “it would be extremely counterproductive if any proposed [rule] changes led to a decrease in the number of participating wireless providers.”