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Wireless RERC on the Record: Wireless Emergency Alerts & Accessibility

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January 13, 2016 - The Wireless RERC, in collaboration with Georgia Tech’s Center for Advanced Communications Policy (CACP), added their expertise to support several of the proposed enhancements to the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system.  In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released by the FCC In the Matter of Improving Wireless Emergency Alerts and Community Initiated Alerting [PS Docket 15-91], the FCC requested stakeholder input on several ways to enhance the effectiveness and content of WEA messages.  Wireless RERC and CACP research on the accessibility of WEA messages for people with disabilities provided empirical data in support of their recommendations. From a regulatory review and literature review conducted under contract with the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS) Project Management Office (PMO), a framework was developed that identified influencing factors that, if not optimal, could negatively impact the effectiveness of WEA messages.  For example, current WEA regulations limit the potential of the system.  Most notably the 90 character maximum length and the geotargeting boundaries being too large (i.e., county wide).  Additionally, the rules currently prohibit the use of URLs and dialable numbers. The accessibility provisions only addressed alert notification signals (i.e., vibration cadence and alert tone) but not access to the content of the message.  For people with disabilities, these features would be especially useful as it would enable them to receive more information about the event in a format that is accessible to them, or made accessible via the assistive technology they have installed on their WEA capable device. Following are a few examples of the recommendations found in the comments:

  • Rules governing WEA should be updated to increase the character limitation.  Doing so should decrease the need to rely on abbreviations and acronyms in order to stay within the character limitation.
  • Rules governing WEA should be updated to allow for the inclusion of URLs.  This would be a step towards enabling the next-generation of WEA, as URLs can contain the additional information the public seeks, including American Sign Language (ASL) videos, emergency management websites or social media feeds, and more.
  • Improve the geotargeting capabilities of the WEA system.  This should increase the relevance of WEA messages to the recipients and likewise, increase their trust of the message, encouraging them to take the desired protective actions.
  • Testing of the WEA system should extend beyond the providers’ infrastructure to the mobile devices in use by the public.  This should increase public awareness of WEA, as many users learned of WEA only after receiving a WEA message for the first time.  The test message could include a link to the IPAWS PMO’s frequently asked questions regarding WEA.

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The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Technologies is sponsored by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under grant number 90RE5007-01-00. The opinions contained in this website are those of the Wireless RERC and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or NIDILRR.