In the early morning hours of April 19, some residents of Watertown, Massachusetts, received an automated phone call telling them to “shelter in place” while the suspected Boston marathon bomber roamed the neighborhood.
The system worked — to a degree. One homeowner ultimately realized a bleeding man, who turned out to be Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, had holed up in the boat on his property. The Watertown man alerted the authorities, and the suspect went into custody.
But why didn’t everyone in Watertown get the call? Because our emergency communications system is flawed.
The federal government began building official emergency notification systems in the 1950s. The most recognizable of these notifications is the Emergency Broadcast System, with its familiar bands of color spanning the television screen and the recognizable drone of repeated beeps on the radio announcing: “This is a test. This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.”
Clearly, we can no longer rely on TV and radio as the primary means of mass emergency communication. In Boston, danger arose at night while people were sleeping, their radios and TVs turned off. And in the information age, a growing number of people don’t access TV through traditional cable news or local broadcasting stations. Many of us get the news through other media.
The next logical step would be to meet people where they are. That means using our nation’s telecommunications infrastructure as a platform for emergency alerts. Nearly every American has a landline phone or a mobile wireless device, such as a smartphone. These gizmos are becoming the preferred medium for how we connect with each other and the world at large.
We already have the technology to deliver mass phone calls to large populations. Some reverse-911 systems are quite sophisticated, and can send calls to all landlines in very specific locations. But Americans are migrating away from landlines in favor of wireless. If you don’t have a landline, you’re out of range — and possibly out of luck.
Furthermore, many reverse-911 systems don’t work via Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP. VoIP routes call traffic over Internet Protocol networks rather than traditional telephone networks.
These technological limitations are a huge concern, since the most recent data indicate that less than half of American households have a traditional landline phone. One in three relies on wireless phones, while another quarter have VoIP landlines.
When promoting these reverse-911 systems, providers tout subscribers’ ability to self-register their phone numbers. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, the opt-in model is confusing for consumers.
And to complicate matters, some of our country’s most powerful communications companies are pushing to completely eliminate state and federal oversight of their services.
If policymakers go along with this grand plan, fewer people will have access to critical services like reverse 911, and no regulatory agency will have the authority to do anything about it.
So what’s the best way to reach people during an emergency?
Our leaders must encourage innovation and get the government to adapt to new and emerging technologies.
There are laws on the books about wireless emergency communications. The Warning, Alert, and Response Network (WARN) Act established Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs), which are text-like warning messages that are 90 characters long and are sent in intervals.
But the only devices that are technologically equipped to receive these messages are high-priced smartphones. Those who can’t afford them won’t be able to receive emergency notifications.
And commercial wireless service providers aren’t even required to distribute Wireless Emergency Alerts: Participation in the program is completely voluntary. Low-income and senior populations tend to subscribe to phone plans from smaller wireless carriers that are less likely to offer WEAs.
This all adds up to a communications industry that relies on the public airwaves but isn’t required to alert the public in times of crisis.
As people cut their landlines and transition away from traditional TV and radio, we need effective emergency notification systems that will work on all mobile devices. The FCC should speed up the transition to mobile notification systems and pressure the industry to ensure that these systems work on all cellphones and landlines.
These changes can help save lives.