Congressman Pete Olson

Representing the 22nd District of Texas

Use Wireless System to Warn of Hurricanes

September 28, 2017
Op-Ed

Use Wireless System to Warn of Hurricanes
Rep. Pete Olson

This hurricane season has taken a toll on the U.S. and the Caribbean. Hurricane Harvey alone has devastated Houston and the Texas coastline, taking more than 75 lives and inflicting an estimated $190 billion in damage to our infrastructure and communities. Houston absorbed 51.88 inches and farther east the total topped 60 inches. Just a few weeks later, Hurricane Irma struck Florida, causing $100 billion in damages and killing at least 75 people. These hurricanes are critical examples of horrific natural disasters that have always wreaked havoc on the United States. The damages and loss of life are still being calculated from Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina, one of the five deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, struck the Gulf Coast with a final death toll of roughly 1,836. More than half the victims were senior citizens. A few weeks later, Hurricane Rita struck the southeast Texas coast line, killing 59 people.

What many don't know is so many of these lives were lost simply due to a failure to get word out to citizens, young or old, to evacuate in an efficient, safe and reliable manner. After Katrina and Rita, in response to the fact the U.S. had no public alert system designed to reach people on their mobile devices, President George W. Bush issued Executive Order 13407 (EO), entitled the "Public Alert and Warning System" and Congress created the Warning Alert Response Network Act (WARN Act). The order stated that "it is the policy of the U.S. to have an effective, reliable, integrated, flexible, and comprehensive system to alert and warn the American people in situations of war, terrorist attack, natural disaster, or other hazards to public safety…" The WARN Act followed that guidance, creating what is now known as the Wireless Emergency Alert system.

Now, almost 11 years later, we continue to witness event after tragic event where an effective and reliable emergency alert system could have saved lives. Yet, despite the goal of the WARN Act, a comprehensive system is still not in place to accurately and urgently warn those who may be in harm's way.

We need a mass notification system that will deliver the right information to the right people at the right time, so they can protect their lives and property. Technology today allows us to stand on a street corner, use our smartphones to order a pizza and then, utilizing the geo-location feature, have a car pick us up to take us home to eat the pizza.

We can leverage this same location capability in wireless devices to integrate with the Wireless Emergency Alert System and more accurately target emergency alerts. The Federal Communications Commission has been working on a series of Proposed Rulemakings to direct the creation of the system to enable technology envisioned by the EO in 2006. Chairman Ajit Pai of the FCC recognizes this as well. In the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking 15-91 he wrote, "After studying the record and speaking with public safety officials, including in New York City, I agreed that we need to do more than just codify the status quo. So I proposed that we be more forward leaning, that we commit in this Order to moving ahead with a device-based approach to geo-targeting." In this same administrative proceeding, wireless carriers have agreed that such a system would not require the carriers to undertake expensive modifications to their networks. Public Safety officials also agree that device based geo-targeting can properly address this problem.

The FCC needs our support to finalize its rule adding device-based geo locating to the Wireless Emergency Alert System and not allow bureaucratic inertia to stand in the way of creating a state-of-the-art public system. As we are in hurricane season and face more natural and man-made disasters in our future, our citizens deserve and need a device-based public alert system now that will deliver timely and accurate information to those who find themselves in harm's way. We should not let the perfect solution become the enemy of the good; too many lives are at stake.

Olson, R-Sugar Land, is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.