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Pointing to North Bay Fires, FCC Votes for Improved Wireless Alerts

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Amber Alerts are an example of a Wireless Emergency Alert. (Tony Webster/Flickr)

When you get surprised by one of those Amber Alerts on your cellphone, that's a wireless emergency alert. But they aren't just used for child abduction cases.

Government agencies can contact wireless providers and ask them to override cellphones in a specific geographic area, and send out a message that you can't ignore.

The Federal Communications Commission passed new rules Tuesday to make those wireless emergency alerts more effective and fix some of the technical problems that Sonoma County officials say hampered their rescue efforts during the October wildfires.

County officials did not use wireless emergency alerts in Sonoma, Napa or Mendocino counties during the October fires. Lake County did use the service.

Chris Helgren, emergency manager for Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services, defended his decision not to use the alerts, saying that they were too geographically broad.

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The new rules from the Federal Communications Commission, which take effect on Nov. 30, 2019, require wireless providers to deliver emergency alerts to a more geographically precise area than before, up to one-tenth of a mile from the target area.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said this would fix the problem raised by California officials in the wake of the wildfires.

"They cited fears that the alert would also have gone out to people not in harm's way, potentially provoking a mass exodus that could clog the road and prevent those actually in danger from reaching safety," Pai said.

During the October fires Sonoma County officials relied on two different kinds of alerts to notify residents of evacuations and other information. Unlike wireless emergency alerts, SoCo Alert and Nixle are both opt-in, and many fire victims have said they had no warning of the wildfires approaching their neighborhoods.

Under the new rules, the messages also have to remain available for 24 hours after receipt, or until the consumer chooses to delete the message.

As of May 1, 2019, wireless providers also will have to support sending messages in Spanish, and expand the length of alerts from 90 to 360 characters.

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