Authorities will be able to provide the public with alerts via wireless devices that are more detailed and geographically relevant under a proposal to revamp the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system that FCC commissioners approved unanimously yesterday.

In the notice of proposed rulemaking, alerts delivered to wireless devices via the WEA system could be as long as 360 characters, instead of the 90-character messages that are supported today. In addition, the messages will be able to contain embedded phone numbers, URLs for web sites and possibly multimedia to improve ease of use.

Another potential enhancement relates to the geography of WEA messages—the notice proposes that participating wireless providers be required to deliver the messages to more specific areas determined by authorities.

These proposals and other potential features will be the subject of a public-notice proceeding, according to FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

“We want WEA alerts to be much more localized, so messages only reach the actual people who are at risk,” Clyburn said during the meeting, which was webcast. “Otherwise, those who repeatedly get alerts that may not be relevant for them may one day actually ignore alerts that directly impact their health and safety. So we ask whether we should limit WEA alerts, to finer geospatial areas such as geocodes, circles, or polygons.”

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said she believes that WEA policies “deserve an update,” noting that people have become increasingly dependent on wireless devices as their primary source of information and communications, particularly during emergencies.

“They need to be refreshed to reflect our reliance on mobile devices and their unique ability to keep us informed when disaster strikes,” Rosenworcel said. “This rulemaking does just that. It proposes more information in Wireless Emergency Alert messages and more targeted geographical delivery of that information. In addition, it recommends expanded testing opportunities for state and local public-safety authorities.”

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly voted for the item and expressed appreciation that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler included language that addressed many of O’Rielly’s concerns about the original proposal. However, O’Rielly said he wants to make sure that the WEA requirements do not become so burdensome that wireless carriers might choose to opt out of WEA rather than participate in the alerting program.

“We need to keep in mind that there is a delicate balance between the obligations asked of participating wireless providers and their willingness to remain part of the voluntary system,” O’Rielly said. “It would be extremely counterproductive if any proposed changes led to a decrease in the number of participating wireless providers. Our first priority should be to do no harm to a system that seems to be working relatively well.

Could it work better? Maybe. Could the Commission screw it up through inappropriate tweaks or wholesale changes? Definitely.”