Inside the Decades-Long Fight for Better Emergency Alerts

MORE THAN 20 years later, Tom Wheeler can still remember the sound that several thousand tons of aluminum train make when they crash into an abandoned vehicle.

Wheeler, who would eventually serve as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under President Obama, was at the time working on the opposite end of the regulatory spectrum, as CEO of the cell phone lobbying group, CTIA. He was sitting in the office of then-FCC chairman Reed Hundt. On the desk between them sat an old reel-to-reel tape recorder.

Hundt hit play, and urged Wheeler to listen closely. It was a recorded 9-1-1 call, in which a frantic woman reported being stuck in her car on the railroad tracks. She wasn’t sure of her exact location; she tried her best to describe her surroundings instead. Then came the train whistle. The woman rushed out of her car, moments before the train collided with it.

“Reed turns to me and says, ‘We’re going to solve that problem. Your technology has got the ability to be located, and we’re going to solve that,’” Wheeler remembers. And he agreed. He just didn’t realize how long it would take to do it.

 

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