Groundbreaking Upgrades to FEMA National Wireless Alerting System to Improve Targeting, Message Size and Accessibility for Harris County Residents During Emergencies

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) today announced major improvements to Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) messages, part of the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS). WEA messaging is used to communicate risks and threats through mobile devices like smartphones that are connected to cellular data networks. Common uses include extreme weather emergencies and AMBER Alerts. The improvement comes after substantial negotiation and input from the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HCOHSEM).

Effective Wednesday, December 18, 2019, WEA message originators (which includes public safety agencies trained and authorized in the use of the tool) will have the ability to better geo-target WEA messages to a specific geographic area. For example, with this improvement an alert can be delivered to a specific neighborhood affected by a specific reservoir or dam facing a threat. The upgrade is expected to limit overshoot – the area outside of the intended recipient area – to no more than 1/10 of a mile. This will result in less over-alerting of individuals not in immediate danger during an incident.

Just as importantly, public safety agencies will be able to send messages of up to 360 characters in both English and Spanish. Previously, WEA messages were limited to only 90 characters and could be transmitted only in English. With this upgrade, alert originators will also have additional flexibility in using and testing the system for other types of public safety incidents, like boil water advisories or curfews in select areas.

“The ability to better micro target alerts in both English and Spanish will substantially reduce over alerting and make sure the alerts we do send contain the life-saving information residents need to act fast,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. “With this vital improvement, we are applying state-of-the-art technology to help us better respond to the reality of 21st century threats. I want to thank everyone from the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for their incredible work to improve this national system and for their help in building a more resilient Harris County.”

“The release of these alert improvements immediately gives local public safety officials better tools to save lives and bring Wireless Emergency Alerts in line with today’s technology,” said Sánchez. “The improved WEA capabilities are an example of how federal agencies, wireless providers, technology experts and public safety agencies can work together to improve how our community receives alerts.”

The Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management (HCOHSEM) has been working with the Federal Communications Commission, FEMA, the National Weather Service, major wireless carriers, and the emergency management community to improve the WEA system since it went live nearly 5 years ago. The WEA enhancements were part of a set of recommendations from the Federal Communications Commission’s Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council V released in early 2017. HCOHSEM Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator Francisco Sánchez, Jr. co-chaired the group negotiating these improvements and led an effort by public safety stakeholders to make these much-needed enhancements a reality.

In addition to alert enhancements, efforts continue to better equip alert originators to effectively use these new tools.