CHAT ROOM: Emergency!

In the Chat Room this month, THE STANDARD sat down with Fiona James, Deputy Director of the AWARN Alliance. The Advanced Warning and Response Network represents a major upgrade to America’s emergency communication system – using Next Gen TV broadcasting to deliver rich-media, geo-targeted public alerts. We checked in with her for an update on this important aspect of ATSC 3.0.

THE STANDARD: The AWARN Alliance’s membership and scope have expanded significantly since we interviewed your Executive Director John Lawson last year. Can you please tell us about your mission today, particularly as it relates to driving implementation of Next Gen TV powered by ATSC 3.0? 

JAMES: As he said in that interview, “It’s no accident that the AWARN Alliance was one of the four signatories to the Joint Petition requesting the FCC’s approval of the voluntary implementation of ATSC 3.0.” We can’t forget that, as an industry, we made promises about ATSC 3.0 delivering advanced, rich-media, geo-targeted alerting. Our mission hasn’t changed since that filing: “To reduce the human and financial cost of disasters and other public emergencies by leveraging the unique capabilities of ATSC 3.0 to create the world’s most advanced emergency alerting system.” As such, it’s great that ATSC baked in the capabilities of advanced alerting throughout the 3.0 standard.

As we peel back the layers, we’re discovering that there are still some questions to be answered before actual implementation. In 2019, AWARN is looking to convene cross-industry discussions that address some of the major questions that still remain. These include how and when the wake-up function may be used, the relationship between official alerts and breaking news, and what guidelines might be established between broadcasters and alert originators for the voluntary transmission of advanced emergency messaging.

For successful deployment of the ATSC 3.0 advanced emergency alert system, the AWARN Alliance needs to keep engaging with emergency managers, broadcasters and the CE industry to develop UX (user experience) guidelines and address other implementation questions. It’s a collaborative effort and we’re proud to be working with many great partners on this. Our membership has grown to include commercial and public broadcasters, NAB, CTA and tech companies in the U.S., South Korea and Japan. There are many industry players, including station groups, networks and major CE makers still on the sidelines who we encourage to get more involved, both with AWARN and ATSC.

THE STANDARD: That’s great, Fiona, but how does that mission fit with things like your recent UX workshops?

JAMES: With a team that included a prominent social scientist and local partners in Southern California, Arizona and New York, we convened workshops and focus groups with emergency managers who handle alerting for 40 million people. Our workshops focused on refining the UX for imminent threat alerts, initially for TVs – not mobile screens. In California, the UX use-case was based on a wildfire scenario which, given the tragedies occurring there right now, was certainly a poignant topic. I’m not sure that I could imagine anything more terrifying than trying to escape a fast moving wildfire with my family. It’s easy to understand why, without clear up-to-date evacuation instructions, many people just freeze – the fear must be paralyzing. The ability to communicate life-saving information with the public is paramount.

The workshops produced findings that will help us compile a UX style-guide that we will provide to our membership for implementing alerts.  For voluntary carriage of advanced emergency alerts to occur, we need to keep driving the conversations at every step in the transmission chain. Our work with the emergency manager community is about establishing and fostering long-term relationships. We hope to move to consumer testing in 2019 and, further down the road so to speak, explore usability for mobile devices and connected cars.

THE STANDARD: The work of the ATSC AEA (Advanced Emergency Advisory) Implementation Team seems to be on a parallel path with AWARN Alliance activities. Are these parallel paths converging? How’s the alliance interfacing with the I Team?

 JAMES: AWARN and the AEA I-Team have complimentary roles in defining what a next-gen multimedia alert will be and how that alert will be delivered.  AWARN is figuring out the “what,” while the I-Team is figuring out the “how.” We have a great working relationship with the I-Team, and we depend upon them and our other partners for the technical side of the process, including NAB PILOT, Pearl TV and ONE Media to name a few.

For the NAB Show next April, we’re planning a “converged demo” that will highlight our recent UX research work as well as the backend technical work that the I-Team and its members have developed and continue to refine. A collaborative approach is what the wider industry needs to show that advanced emergency alerting is real, will benefit individual stations and local communities, and ultimately will save lives across the nation.