Georgia Tech Researchers Studying National Wireless Alert Test to Improve Access

Posted September 28, 2023

On the afternoon of Oct. 4, every active cell phone in the U.S. will sound off with the familiar tones of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system as part of a rare nationwide test of the technology. Researchers from Georgia Tech will be among several teams collecting data on the test, specifically looking for information on challenges in receiving the alerts faced by people with disabilities. 

Salimah LaForce of the Center for Advanced Communications Policy (CACP), John Rempel from the Center for Inclusive Design and Innovation, and Deaf Link, Inc. have assembled a nationwide panel of about 10,000 people with disabilities to learn more about whether they received the test, in what format, and their location, among other things, to better understand access challenges. 

It’s part of a larger survey initiative by the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center, a federally funded research and development center operated by the RAND Corporation, to understand how well Americans receive the alerts. The center tapped LaForce and CACP for the work due to their extensive work studying technology challenges among people with disabilities. 

“Disability shouldn’t be a barrier to accessing potentially lifesaving emergency information,” said LaForce. “This survey will help us better understand how cell phone users receive the alerts and about any challenges they may have faced, including those posed by the type of cell phone they own.” 

WEA Alerts Save Lives, but Challenges Remain 

Wireless Emergency Alert messages are geographically targeted alerts similar to texts sent to cell phones to warn users of threats such as hazardous weather. Cities, state emergency management agencies, and other authorized alerting agencies send the messages. 

The Oct. 4 test is similar to routine tests that some state and local jurisdictions conduct, except that, in this case, users will not be able to opt out. Tests will also be delivered to televisions and radios via a different technology that’s not part of LaForce’s survey. This will be the first national test since 2021 and only the second since the WEA system went live in 2012. 

LaForce and CACP have been tracking issues with WEA alerts for years, noting technological gaps that prevent some users from receiving the full alerts and numerous challenges that can make receiving them difficult for the 42.5 million people living with disabilities in the U.S. For instance, those with hearing disabilities might miss audible signals such as the WEA tone, while individuals with visual disabilities could struggle with text-based notifications if text-to-speech isn’t enabled on their phone. The technology used in some older models and some subsidized phones may also limit the effectiveness of these alerts for economically disadvantaged individuals with disabilities, according to LaForce. 

Novel Survey to Use American Sign Language 

The survey is meant to find out how many cellphone users received test messages, what language it was in, and other information, such as race and ethnicity, language, and disability, that could help determine whether those factors affect the ability of cell phone users to receive timely emergency alerts. 

As part of the project, LaForce helped pioneer what she said may be one of the first survey instruments undertaken using American Sign Language.  

“Using ASL in the survey will allow people who primarily use sign language to communicate to respond to the survey comfortably and naturally,” she said. 

This initiative addresses a significant gap in existing survey methods, which often rely on written or spoken language and may marginalize those who primarily communicate through ASL. 

It’s just another part of CACP’s work to influence tech policy in ways that improve the human condition, LaForce said. 

“Technology works best when it works for everyone, and that’s a big part of what drives us forward at CACP,” LaForce said. 

CACP, affiliated with the School of Public Policy and the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, has been evaluating communications technology and policy since 2004. The Center has shared its expertise through policy briefs, reports, submitted congressional testimony, and more. 

The Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center researches and analyzes projects to prevent terrorism, safeguard cyberspace, and strengthen national preparedness and resilience, among other topics. 

The work is supported by a $109,000 grant from FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Project Management Office.

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Salimah LaForce

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Contact For More Information

Michael Pearson
Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts