Feinstein, Harris Press FCC on Wireless Alert Failures During Wildfires

Evacuees wait to be escorted to pick up possessions from their homes on Oct. 11, 2017 in Napa. (David McNew/Getty Images)

In the wake of widely reported shortcomings of emergency alert systems during the recent North Bay wildfires, California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris on Tuesday sent a pointed letter to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) raising concerns about the deficiencies.

The three-page letter sent to FCC chairman Ajit Pai notes that "emergency services in Northern California were not able to transmit lifesaving WEA (Wireless Emergency Alert) messages, because of significant technical deficiencies in the system."

That system is the same one used to issue Amber Alerts and weather-related warnings with messages sent directly to cellphones in specific areas, unless users opt out.

The letter specifically notes that "because the WEA system does not enable precise geotargeting -- a feature that has been standard in mobile applications for years -- emergency services cannot send an evacuation message without reaching a large number of unaffected residents."

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As a result, they wrote, the local authorities that send the warnings "are caught in a bind between notifying individuals in imminent danger and risking mass panic."

The letter also points to the FCC's failure to issue final rules on requiring wireless carriers to "enable precise geotargeting of WEA warnings, " even though the FCC approved the proposal over a year ago.

After the fast-moving fires forced residents to run for their lives early last week, emergency officials in Sonoma and Napa counties faced questions over their failure to notify residents using the WEA system. Sonoma officials specifically said they weighed the option, but ultimately ruled it out for fear it would have caused countywide panic.

According to the FCC website, Napa is not one of the 12 California counties participating in the WEA system.

On its site, the FCC notes that "WEA enables government officials to target emergency alerts to specific geographic areas -- lower Manhattan, for example -- through cell towers that broadcast the emergency alerts for reception by WEA-enabled mobile devices."

The FCC adds that while the alerts can be tailored geographically to counties, "participating carriers may be able to target alerts to smaller areas."

The senators asked the FCC whether they have obtained feedback from cities and counties that recently experienced natural disasters, including Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Jose, to learn how well the WEA system performed.

They asked the FCC to respond to their questions by Oct. 24.

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