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FCC updates emergency alerts to avoid 2018 false alert fiasco

The Federal Communications Commission is refreshing its text alert system, combining two types of alerts into a single “National Alerts” category for iPhones and other Wireless Emergency Alert-supporting devices, as well as introducing checks to prevent false alerts from being made.

The FCC issued a Report and Order on Thursday in response to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, which required it to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to make rules to “strengthen emergency alerting.”

As part of the change, the existing “Presidential Alerts” category that was introduced in 2018 will be combined with alerts from FEMA, in a new category titled “National Alerts,” according to The Verge. The category will continue to be a “non-optional alert class” that will appear on all WEA-supporting mobile devices, such as iPhones.

A large part of the Report and Order is dedicated to ensuring there aren’t any mistaken messages issued using the system. The FCC specifically references a 2018 false emergency alert in Hawaii that warned of incoming ballistic missiles, as the incident “highlighted the need to improve these systems.”

The changes include encouraging all states to form “State Emergency Communications Committees” to help administer alerts, or to review the composition of existing committees that do the same task. Certification of annual committee meetings are also required.

The order also requires the creation of a checklist of information that needs to be included in annual state Emergency Alert System plans, along with amending the process for review by the FCC itself. Government agencies will be able to report false alerts to the FCC’s operations center, while more clarification will be provided on how alert originators can repeat transmissions.

FEMA and the FCC will be conducting a national test of the wireless alerts and the Emergency Alert System, affecting televisions and radios, on August 11.

At the time of the false alert, Apple received criticism for its own alerts from Apple News, which sent a series of push messages to iPhones informing users of CNN’s story on the incident. A number of users received a repeated alert every seven seconds for a period of around ten minutes.

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