Houston area emergency phone alerts getting longer, more local and bilingual

Federal emergency management officials can now send longer, bilingual, more geographically specific phone alerts thanks to new federal requirements approved this week.

Harris, Fort Bend, Montgomery and Galveston counties applauded the Federal Communications Commission’s vote Tuesday to modify requirements for the Wireless Emergency Alerts system. WEA warnings are sent by public safety officials through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).

Participating wireless carriers, such as Verizon or T-Mobile, then transmit the alerts to customers in affected areas, according to FEMA. Back in July, Harris County’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management told the FCC that the system was underused because of its “limited geo-targeting capabilities.”

After Tuesday’s ruling, Francisco Sanchez Jr., deputy emergency management coordinator for the Harris County OHSEM, issued an statement praising the decision.

“The deadly hurricanes of 2017, the Las Vegas shooting, the attempted terror attack in New York City and the catastrophic California wildfires have highlighted the need for WEA to be revamped so it is in line with today’s technology,” he said.

More characters, language options

During Hurricane Harvey, Fort Bend County’s alert system froze because it could not send an evacuation notice to the large coverage area that officials tried to notify, said Lach Mullen, a planner for the county Office of Emergency Management. Mullen said Fort Bend County quickly purchased new software and is in the early stages of using IPAWS.

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service had already been sending alerts to county residents. Mullen said the new rule that requires alerts to be sent in English and Spanish, as well as increasing the character limit of messages from 90 to 360, will be a bigger help to Fort Bend County than geo-targeting changes.

“It sounds like they’re going to allow links now in the alerts,” he said. “It’s good news to us; hyperlinks are critical with the character limits. [Three-hundred and sixty] is still not enough space to give people enough critical information, so links help.”

Cynthia Jamieson, homeland security planner and public information officer for Montgomery County, said the new  geo-targeting requirements were helpful.

“It’s my understanding that we weren’t [able] to send them more specifically,” she said. “I think it will definitely benefit Montgomery County; we have a lot of Spanish-speaking residents here so they need to get those same alerts.”

Participating wireless carriers must implement the Spanish language alert functions and expanded character limits by May 1, 2019, while the geo-targeting changes must be done by Nov. 30, 2019.

Brittany Viegas, chief communication officer for the Galveston County Office of Emergency Management, said her office has already been sending geographically specific alerts, but the extended character limit will help.

“We’re actually pleased with it because it will allow for better communication from us,” she said.


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