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FEMA Looks to Symbols to Enhance Wireless Alerts

Idea is to enhance 90-character messages

When FEMA began developing its Integrated Public Alerts & Warning System 15 years ago, not many envisioned smartphones for everyday use, nor as an alerting tool.

Now the agency is looking to improve its system for wireless alerts sent over smartphones. Wireless alerts are 90-character text messages indicating an imminent threat, an AMBER alert or a presidential message. They typically end with a message for the user to tune to a radio or television for more information.

FEMA wants to add symbols to Common Alerting Protocol-compliant wireless alerts. The addition of symbols to an alert message on a smartphone, tablet or Website may make an alert more clear to someone who doesn’t speak English or who is deaf or hard-of hearing, experts believe.

The effort comes as the FCC, too, is exploring the concept of multilingual alerting for broadcasters, satellite and cable systems and how that can best be accomplished.

In FEMA’s case, IPAWS Director Antwane Johnson said during a webinar yesterday the agency has learned “there’s no one solution” to meet the requirements of all citizens. There’s no single translation tool that can take into consideration all dialects, as well as American Sign Language, for example.

That’s why the agency began looking at symbols that would be easily recognizable. The agency is asking industry partners to help identify what symbols would be appropriate to use for mobile alerting and what can be done to fill in the gaps. 

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