The increased reliance on emergency text alerts to receive warnings of natural or manmade disasters is a capability that most people have come to expect. Listening to broadcast radio warnings of severe weather happening miles away has transformed into more precise, geo-located alerts that target specific locations. The benefits of this technology are profound and should lead to people taking action when an alert comes in because they know that the threat is timely and accurate to their locations. New technologies could save many lives during future disasters.
Notwithstanding human or technological errors that do occur – for example, the erroneous North Korean missile alert in Hawaii or nonstop weather alerts that drive people to disable the alert feature on their phones – these alerts have the ability to save lives in ways not possible only a few years ago. Unfortunately, as powerful as these systems and smartphones are to pinpoint locations or to receive and display alerts specific to nearby life-threatening situations, this capability would fail if there is no “last mile” signal to communicate with handheld hardware.
Lessons Learned From Wildfires in California
As the recent wildfires in California demonstrated, this communication channel is vulnerable to the same disaster it is trying to warn against – everything burns, including cell towers and power lines – and without coverage, lives may be in danger. After fires ravaged California’s wine country in October 2017, Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordono noted that “communication problems in general have been difficult,” due to the size and scale of the fire, which ultimately killed more than 40 people and destroyed 3,500 homes and businesses. In Sonoma County, the fires disabled 77 cellphone towers, some due to power failures. Without cell coverage in the immediate area of the fires, emergency alerts could not be delivered to smartphones. Although Giordono noted that residents who registered for county alerts for their landline phones would receive warnings, this assumes that homes have a traditional (and self-powered) twisted copper pair landline connected to a hard-wired telephone. For the increasing number of people who have either discontinued using their landline phones or have moved to an internet phone service such as Vonage or MagicJack, these “landline” alerts would only arrive if these houses still have internet service.
Given the power outages reported throughout the fire-ravaged region, that may be a poor assumption. Giordono also noted that residents can sign up for alerts through Nixle, which the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and many other jurisdictions across the nation use to disseminate information about weather, law enforcement, and traffic alerts, as well as other events that may affect a given county or jurisdiction. Nixle uses multiple alert pathways, including cellular, wi-fi, and email to send alerts. However, Nixle is equally dependent on cellular or broadband internet to deliver alerts. In the case of the Sonoma wildfires, areas hit hardest and quickly – and notably without power for cell towers or home cable modems – would not receive these alerts.
Geo-Targeted Alert Systems
Despite dependencies on commercial infrastructure (commercial power and wireless providers), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are moving ahead with the development and use of geo-targeted emergency alerts as part of the Federal Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system. WEA notifications can be received on most newer cellphones, and are delivered as unique text-like messages accompanied by a full-volume alert tone “to warn the public about dangerous weather, missing children, and other critical situations.” By default, these alerts are enabled on all WEA-capable cellphones. However, at the commercial wireless carrier’s discretion, users can opt out of “emergency” and “Amber” alerts occurring in their region. However, “Presidential Alerts” cannot be blocked.
On Thursday, 5 April 2018, the FCC and FEMA conducted the first test of the WEA system across the 21 jurisdictions that make up the “National Capital Region” around Washington, D.C. Between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. (EST), approximately 5 million people received the test alert. Since WEA notifications are targeted at phones that are identified to be in a specific geographic area (defined by the “county” the phone is in), all cellphones – even those just visiting the D.C. area – received the alert. Although lessons learned from the erroneous “missile alert” in Hawaii have been carefully considered, and the word “TEST” will be clearly denoted in the message, it was still a jarring experience for many. Public safety agencies were prepared for a barrage of calls to 911. However, the test went off with few technical issues, and most people received the alert as expected.
The power of the WEA, Nixle, and other alert notification systems used by emergency management agencies are a huge step forward in being able to notify people in specific areas of imminent, life-threatening situations. When seconds count – such as an approaching tornado or severe weather event – these alerts can save lives. However, the wireless infrastructure for delivering the alerts is a core dependency that has no backup.
Following Hurricane Maria, the infrastructure-ravaged Caribbean islands had no commercial power, and cell service was unavailable to millions. In the case of Hurricane Maria, the National Weather Service was able to provide advanced warnings to residents, providing ample time for preparation. However, when the damage became catastrophic for residents who lost everything, WEA could have been used to notify residents in specific areas or places where they could find shelter, food, and water. Unfortunately, although most people had cellphones with enough power to receive alerts – at least for several hours following the hurricane – there was no way for these alerts to be sent.
In Puerto Rico, the FCC authorized the use of Google Alphabet’s Project Loon, which provided high-altitude balloons to deliver cell service to the island. However, that was several weeks after the event. Despite strategies to put such balloons (or other mobile cell service solutions) in place more quickly in the future, the window of time following a catastrophic event is small. When commercial infrastructure is unavailable or, as in the case of the Sonoma County wildfires, the people being alerted are just minutes away from imminent danger, there is no readily available backup solution. That said, efforts to build an “earth-proof” cell system have recently received a boost.
On 29 March 2018, the FCC gave SpaceX its approval to build a space-based cellular service. This represents its “first approval of a U.S.-licensed satellite constellation to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies.” SpaceX will likely be the first of many space-based cellular broadband solutions to develop in the future. Although SpaceX is focusing its initial service offering to underserved parts of the world, arrangements with FEMA to utilize this new service could be negotiated to use this infrastructure during loss of infrastructure emergencies before and after incidents. For Sonoma County and citizens in Puerto Rico immediately after the hurricane, a resilient space-based system could have become a lifesaver. In the meantime, when infrastructure fails, having an emergency evacuation and shelter-in-place plan remains the best advice.
Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso
Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso is the executive director of the Capital Wireless Information Net (CapWIN) Program at the University of Maryland, which provides software and mission-critical data access services to first responders in and across dozens of jurisdictions, disciplines, and levels of government. Formerly with IBM Business Consulting Services, he has more than 20 years of experience supporting large-scale implementation projects for information technology, and extensive experience in several related fields such as change management, business process reengineering, human resources, and communications.