Leveraging the System
How agencies can ensure the protection of people and property
- By Troy Harper
- Jun 01, 2019
For decades, public alerting systems have served as a critical
notification tool for sending alerts to citizens’ smartphones,
landlines and through broadcast channels. These systems
have assumed even greater importance in recent years, due
to more intense and frequent severe/extreme weather events, as well
as more diverse non-weather emergency threats. From hurricanes
and wildfires to active shooters, missing children and biological attack
warnings, the need to keep citizens informed with accurate, realtime
information is critical to protecting people and property.
On the heels of the Hawaii ballistic missile emergency alert “false
alarm” and other incidents, the Federal Communications Commission
(FCC) last year announced changes designed to improve the
integrity, efficacy and reliability of the nation’s alerting systems. The
updated FCC requirements for Emergency Alert Systems adopts revisions
to the Emergency Alert System (EAS) rules and sought comment
on further measures to improve the effectiveness of both the
EAS and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). Primarily, the items the
FCC want to see in the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System
(IPAWS) is secured logins, alert launch safeguards and a clear separation
of the test environment from the live environment, including
color codes for distinction.
WEA, as many readers know, is a public safety system that allows
citizens to receive geographically-targeted, text messages alerting
them of safety threats in their area. It was established in 2008 as a
result of the Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act and
was launched in 2012 and according to the FCC, the system been used more than 40,000 times to warn the public about impending
weather, missing children and other emergencies, all through cell
The WEA alerts are sent through FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert
and Warning System (IPAWS) to participating wireless carriers, who
then push the alerts to mobile devices in the affected areas. Federal,
state and local authorities have the ability to leverage IPAWS alerts
to send messages within their own jurisdictions as well. IPAWS was
created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in
2006 to provide public safety officials with an effective way to alert
and warn the public about serious emergencies and provide the public
with life-saving information quickly. IPAWS is a modernization
and integration of the nation’s alert and warning infrastructure.
For all of the benefits that IPAWS, WEA and public alerting systems
can deliver, usage rates at the county/local level remain low.
There are roughly 3,000 counties across the U.S., yet for a variety of
reasons less than 1,100 of them utilize IPAWS. Given that IPAWS can
reach the mobile phone of every citizen (who owns one), increasing
the number of counties using public alerting systems will go hand-inhand
with keeping more people safe.
Public alerting systems represent another tool in the toolkit that
public safety officials should be using to protect citizens, alongside
phone, text, social media, emergency sirens, etc. That said, the ability
of agencies to better leverage public alerting systems and drive
broader citizen participation comes down to acknowledging current
challenges and following a set of best practices.
Public Alerting System Best Practices
As noted, county-level participation in IPAWS, in particular, is a
work in progress. Fear of the “oops” factor if an alert is distributed (or
not distributed) in error, the need for self-administered classes and
training and commonly-held misperceptions about public alerting
systems, in general, have slowed county uptake.
Extending the availability of public alerting systems to more citizens
and maximizing the benefits these systems can deliver can be
aided by following several best practices.
Complete IPAWS Accreditation Process
Emergencies take their heaviest toll on property and life when there
aren’t effective communications that reach all audiences. The federal
government released its strategic plan for IPAWS in 2010, and
all government agencies can use the system for public messages in
While qualified government entities can use IPAWS, they must
first get accredited. To start, select an origination software provider
that has an IPAWS Developer Memorandum of Agreement (MOA).
Be sure your provider can launch alerts to employees and residents
through voice, text, email, RSS feeds, website widgets, social media,
and more, all from one interface.
Focus on growing citizen participation rate. IPAWS is a core
but not the sole component of an effective emergency notification
plan. The power and limitations of IPAWS demonstrate the need for a
single initiation tool for all alert delivery channels as there will be circumstances
when not all residents receive an IPAWS alert messages
and no one solution hits every recipient on every device, every time.
By running ongoing campaigns to get citizens and government
employees to sign up for alerts, you can increase the ability to reach
more people during emergencies and severe weather. This is especially
important in areas that have seasonal populations and higher
rates of extreme weather events.
While IPAWS and FEMA’s Wireless Emergency Alerts are federally
managed national notification systems that local communities
can use, many also choose their own notification systems or those
offered by third parties.
Use FEMA Test Lab. FEMA has put forth tremendous effort to
work with local jurisdictions and the emergency notification vendor
community to grow enrollment. FEMA outreach and support efforts
have contributed greatly to the success of IPAWS and growth
in system use. Counties and other local jurisdictions should leverage
FEMA’s enhanced test lab program, where they can log-in and send
thousands of test messages to the lab to ensure the Emergency Mass
Notification System they use works correctly. The test lab is essential
because jurisdictions don’t want the first time they use IPAWS or a
new feature to be during an actual emergency.
Ensure integration with vendor tools. Even as the use of public
alerting systems is trending in the right direction, many public safety
officials are still unclear about how effective IPAWS can be when used
in combination with their existing mass notification systems. There
is uncertainty about what constitutes an imminent threat for a WEA
alert and several other questions about the way IPAWS works.
Public officials struggle in how to best manage multiple alerting
systems and the various methods of disseminating alerts. By integrating
with the right EMNS vendor, localities can reduce the complexity
with a single source tool that can provide for all five avenues of
dissemination through IPAWS: the Emergency Alert System (EAS),
Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), Non-Weather Emergency Messages
(NWEM), COG to COG, and public alert feeds.
We are also starting to see increased innovation to enhance system
capabilities. First, by incorporating the IPAWS tool as an embedded
workflow in an existing mass notification system build, IPAWS
becomes a delivery endpoint rather than a standalone notification -
which means that IPAWS users could simultaneously launch single
emergency messages without having to duplicate the process for both
IPAWS and the vendor notifications. Vendors are also adding new
mapping features that can show users anywhere in the country an
active IPAWS alert has been issued and where it was. By doing so,
counties and other localities can see how peers are using the system
and become more educated on best practices.
Make sure vendor meets updated FCC guidance. In May of
2019, FEMA - IPAWS in collaboration with the FCC and broadcast/
cellular providers will be incorporating several new enhancements to
the current IPAWS system. These new broader capabilities will allow
public safety officials to reach more citizens with longer messages and
in multiple languages. Several new event codes and new alert types
for Blue Alert and Live WEA Testing will be added as well.
With all of these new enhancements coming to IPAWS, it is imperative
to make sure that your IPAWS provider is one that will be
incorporating all of these new capabilities into their IPAWS Alert
Origination tool for your expanded use. Many of the IPAWS tools
currently available to public safety officials across the nation are not
in compliance with the IPAWS functionality requirements that are
in place today. Whether or not they will become compliant with the current standards and/or incorporate the new enhancements should
not be assumed, and investigated thoroughly. One should use caution
when determining the best tool to secure that will allow you to make
the full use of IPAWS and more importantly, one that will be your
responsible partner in saving lives.
Test regularly after implementation. Once an emergency notification
system is implemented, it’s important to make ongoing testing
a part of the regular schedule as it provides organizations with insight
on vulnerabilities and risks associated with emergency communications.
This will help teams identify and try new methods to streamline
message transmissions. Testing can also help the community
maintain its awareness about how they can expect to receive emergency
messaging in case of an emergency. Not only is it important
for administrators and recipients to understand the system and the
technology, but this is also about building their confidence in interacting
Preparedness is key. Preparedness is perhaps the most important
element of having a successful public alerting system because
having a good plan in place is the best way to combat unexpected
emergency events. This includes determining who has permission
to send out different messages and having outlines prepared that include
the purpose of the notification, succinct information and an
outline for response options. A part of being prepared, ironically,
is understanding that not every situation can be prepared for. Even
when there isn’t enough the optimum amount of information available,
it’s important to still send out notifications telling citizens to
protect themselves but lets them decide on the best plan of action
based on their individual situation.
Time is of the essence when alerting the public rapidly and accurately.
Social media can be a valuable channel for reaching citizens,
but it is also the source of misinformation that can derail public safety
and emergency response efforts.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Security Today.