The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted an order to improve geographic targeting of the emergency alerts sent by mobile operators in a bid to improve accuracy.

The Wireless Emergency Alerts system allows authorities to send critical information to the public in short messages over mobile networks. Alerts may cover warnings of severe weather, evacuation or shelter-in place orders and missing person notifications.

Under the new order, operators will be required to deliver alerts across 100 per cent of the target area chosen by an alert originator with an overshoot of no more than one-tenth of a mile. Where coverage is not available, operators must deliver alerts across the covered area which best approximates the target. The rule will go into effect on 30 November 2019.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (pictured, far right) said alerts sent “to the right person at the right time in the right place can be the difference between life and death”, but noted “repeated imprecision” can cause citizens to disregard warnings. FCC chairman Ajit Pai (pictured, centre) said bringing a “finer brush to bear” will help get alerts to people who actually need them.

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly (pictured, second from right) expressed concern operators would not be able to meet the 22-month implementation timeline, arguing the commission “cannot wish technology into existence”. He said further consideration is needed regarding how to implement the move “such as the need for hardware or software changes and updating new standards. This doesn’t happen overnight.”

O’Rielly noted the commission will entertain a waiver of the implementation deadline if the standard process is delayed.

The move comes after a record year of natural disasters in the US and the erroneous deployment of an alert in Hawaii earlier this month warning of an impending missile attack.