Senate Unanimously Pushes Through New Emergency Alert Guidelines

Nearly a year after a false missile alert was issued across Hawaii, legislators have taken another step toward addressing the issue of erroneous emergency alerts.

On Dec. 17, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Reliable Emergency Alert Distribution Improvement (READI) Act. The legislation will explore new ways of alerting the public through online video and audio streaming services, will track and study false alerts when they occur, will alter the way states plan for emergency alerts, and will help ensure more people receive relevant emergency alerts on mobile phones, televisions and radios.

The legislation will also give the federal government the primary responsibility of alerting the public of a missile threat. The bill was introduced by U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), John Thune (R-S.D.), and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).

In short, the READI Act is designed to:

  • Ensure more people receive emergency alerts by eliminating the option to opt out of receiving certain federal alerts, including missile alerts, on mobile phones;
  • Require active alerts issued by the president or FEMA to be repeated. Currently, alerts on TV or radio may only be played once;
  • Explore updating the system to offer emergency alerts over the internet, including to audio and video online streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify;
  • Encourage state emergency communications committees to periodically review and update their state emergency alert system plans, which are often out of date;
  • Compel the Federal Emergency Management Agency to create best practices for state, tribal, and local governments to use for issuing alerts, avoiding false alerts, and retracting false alerts if they occur, as well as for alert origination training and plans for officials to contact each other and federal officials during emergencies; and
  • Establish a reporting system for false alerts so the FCC can track when they occur and examine their causes.

“When a missile alert went out across Hawaii in January, some people never got the message on their phones, while others missed it on their TVs and radios,” said Sen. Schatz, who serves on the Senate Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet Subcommittee.

“Even though it was a false alarm, the missile alert highlighted real ways we can improve the way people receive emergency alerts. [This] bill fixes some of these issues and will help make sure that in an emergency, the public gets the right information they need as quickly as possible,” Schatz said

The National Association of Broadcasters supports the passage of the act, saying the legislation would help improve the timeliness, accuracy and availability of emergency alerts when disaster strikes.

“Local radio and TV broadcasters play a vital role as ‘first informers’ in keeping communities safe, and we understand the importance of relevant and up-to-date information when lives are at risk,” said NAB Executive Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton.

The bill now moves on to the House of Representatives for consideration. 

Susan Ashworth

Susan Ashworth is the former editor of TV Technology. In addition to her work covering the broadcast television industry, she has served as editor of two housing finance magazines and written about topics as varied as education, radio, chess, music and sports. Outside of her life as a writer, she recently served as president of a local nonprofit organization supporting girls in baseball.