Attorney General James Leads Coalition to Expand Language Access for Severe Weather Emergency Alerts

Following Multiple Severe Weather Emergencies, Coalition Urges FCC to Expand Access to Lifesaving Alerts for Extreme Weather Events

NEW YORK – New York Attorney General Letitia James led a coalition of 16 attorneys general and New York City in calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to expand language access for critical government alerts sent to cell phones, known as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs). In a comment letter, the coalition acknowledges the important steps FCC has taken to expand access to WEAs but notes that this proposal would require wireless companies to use machine translation rather than human translation for WEAs and would only include translations for 13 languages. Following multiple severe weather emergencies in New York and across the country, Attorney General James and the coalition urge FCC to adopt its alternative proposal to use human translators, which are far more reliable, instead of machine translation, and to increase the number of available languages from 13 to at least 25. 

“In just the last few weeks, New Yorkers have been hammered by violent storms, flash flooding, and extreme heat, and receiving Wireless Emergency Alerts during these emergencies can be the difference between life and death,” said Attorney General James. “The next severe weather event is a matter of when, not if. It is critical that this potentially lifesaving information be transmitted to the millions of New Yorkers — and Americans nationwide — who are not proficient in English. I applaud the steps FCC has taken thus far and urge them to expand language access even further to ensure no one is left behind.”

The FCC proposes the use of machine translation applications on cell phones that would translate English WEAs to a user’s preferred language without any review by human translators. However, machine translations are not always reliable. A recent joint study by UCLA and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center found that the accuracy rate of machine translations from English varied widely for different languages — from 94 percent accuracy to as low as 55 percent accuracy.

During severe weather emergencies, which are increasingly fueled by climate change, current and accurate information can be critical to survival. Even a slim chance of error in translation could have severe consequences. Instead, the coalition endorses the FCC’s alternative approach of using alert templates for various emergency situations. Those templates would be created by humans, pre-installed on cell phones, and activated when an English-language WEA is received by the phone.

If FCC moves forward with its proposal to include only 13 languages, immigrant communities in New York and nationwide with high rates of Limited English Proficiency (LEP) would be excluded from WEAs. To reach more of these communities now and in the future, Attorney General James and the coalition recommend that WEAs be supported in all languages spoken by at least 300,000 people in the U.S. over five years old — a total of more than 25 non-English languages. The coalition also urges FCC to consider adding additional languages every few years based on the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data on spoken languages and LEP rates.

WEAs remain the most critical method of alerting residents to potential weather emergencies. The New York State Office of Emergency Management and New York City Emergency Management (NYCEM) both send emergency alerts for severe weather and other emergencies via automated text messages, phone calls, e-mails, or social media, and NYCEM’s alert system NotifyNYC can send messages in 13 languages in addition to English. These opt-in systems’ reach is currently limited by a lack of awareness and the need to sign up in order to receive alerts, whereas WEAs automatically reach 75 percent of all active cell phone users in the United States.

Joining Attorney General James in filing these comments are the attorneys general of Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and the City of New York. 

“From flash floods to high Air Quality Indexes, extreme weather events have become increasingly regular — and dangerous — parts of New Yorkers’ everyday lives. Receiving accurate and timely Wireless Emergency Alerts can mean the difference between life and death — as we saw with Hurricane Ida — and every New Yorker, regardless of what language they speak, deserves the same access to these alerts,” said Murad Awawdeh, Executive Director, New York Immigration Coalition. “Lack of language access is one of the biggest obstacles our immigrant neighbors face in accessing life-saving government services and information. Thanks to New York Attorney General James’ leadership, we hope to increase WEA accessibility to more than 25 languages reaching millions of people around New York state and the nation. The FCC’s proposal is a vital step in ensuring that immigrant New Yorkers do not get left unadvised or uninformed.”

“Just in New York, 48 percent of the Asian population has limited English proficiency, and our community collectively speaks dozens of different languages. This makes language accessibility and representative translation services crucial, especially when it comes to emergency communications,” said Jo-Ann Yoo, Executive Director, Asian American Federation. “The Asian American Federation is proud to support Attorney General Letitia James in her efforts to call on the FCC to utilize human-translated alerts and increase the number of languages in which Wireless Emergency Alerts are issued.”

“We wholly support Attorney General Letitia James in pushing for wider language access for Wireless Emergency Alerts,” said Thomas Yu, Executive Director, Asian Americans For Equality. “As we can see in light of recent events, we are moving towards a world with unfortunately more severe inclement weather patterns that can mean life and death for residents in our city. It is imperative that we ensure the public is made aware of immediate precautions they must take to stay safe in a timely manner and in a language they can understand.”

“It is critical for Asian Americans with limited English proficiency to have full access to emergency alerts about severe weather emergencies that could affect their safety and well-being,” said Margaret Fung, Executive Director, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “In order for language access to be meaningful, it is inadequate to rely on machine translations. Human translators must provide or review such alerts. In New York City, Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group with large numbers of new immigrants speaking more than 50 Asian languages. We support Attorney General James and the coalition of state officials calling on the FCC to translate critical alerts into more than 13 languages, based on criteria that reflect the growing LEP populations in various language minority communities.”  

This FCC rulemaking process was prompted in part by Attorney General James’ efforts to advocate for increased language accessibility for WEAs. In March 2022, citing the deadly aftermath of Hurricane Ida in New York City, which disproportionately affected immigrants from Asia with limited English proficiency, Attorney General James sent a letter to the National Weather Service calling for increased language accessibility. The NWS Acting Director at the time told the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) that NWS supports the transmission of its WEAs in many languages but the FCC would need to establish new rules for use of languages beyond English and Spanish. In October 2022, Attorney General James sent a letter to FCC’s Chair and the wireless industry urging them to work together to swiftly expand language accessibility for severe weather alerts.

This matter is being handled by Assistant Attorneys General Max Shterngel and Mihir Desai, and Environmental Scientist D Pei Wu under the supervision of Deputy Bureau Chief Monica Wagner of the Environmental Protection Bureau. The Environmental Protection Bureau is led by Lemuel M. Srolovic and is a part of the Division for Social Justice, which is led by Chief Deputy Attorney General Meghan Faux and overseen by First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.