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The Impact of IPAWS on Public Alerts and Warnings

Federally mandated by presidential executive order, the IPAWS program is progressing rapidly, developing into a promising tool for local emergency managers.

Photo courtesy of Leif Skoogfors/FEMA.
Photo courtesy of Leif Skoogfors/FEMA
Few topics in emergency management have received more attention over the past few years than public alerts and warnings. Across the country, emergency managers wrestle with how to effectively and efficiently advise and mobilize the public in an emergency.

But a grand vision for alerting our nation’s citizens during times of crisis — the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) program — is beginning to materialize. Federally mandated by presidential executive order, the IPAWS program is progressing rapidly, developing into a promising tool for local emergency managers.

IPAWS Background

The IPAWS program launched in 2006 in response to Presidential Executive Order 13407, which required that the U.S. have “an effective, reliable, integrated, flexible and comprehensive system to alert and warn the American people in situations of war, terrorist attack, natural disaster or other hazards to public safety and well-being.”

Residing under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and managed by FEMA, IPAWS’ purpose is to create a fully integrated, multi-modal “system of systems” for warning citizens — and to focus on modernizing and enhancing the aging Emergency Alert System (EAS).

The program’s primary responsibility is ensuring that the president can speak to the American public during a critical national event, but it also aims to provide the power of a national system to local authorities for use during situations of localized “imminent threats” and Amber alerts.

In its initial years, the program received negative reviews for its lack of movement and found itself the target of Congress’ harsh words. Under new leadership, however, momentum is building and the vision is moving closer to becoming reality. Emergency managers, broadcasters, vendors and other stakeholders nationwide are beginning to seriously engage, wanting to learn more about the program and its local impact.

The program’s vision certainly seems worthwhile. But what is it about, what does it mean for emergency managers, and what is the timeline for implementation?

New Set of Protocols

A major obstacle to creating an integrated alert and warning system has been the lack of standards across various warning devices. Automated calling systems, sirens, Telecommunications Device for the Deaf/TeleTYpewriter, electronic billboards, weather radios, facility alarms and the EAS traditionally have operated using separate, proprietary protocols that cannot “speak” with one another. Such an environment has made creating a cohesive alert and warning solution impossible.

This situation is beginning to change as the new Common Alerting Protocol (EDXL-CAP 1.2) has just been approved by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards. The clock on an industry implementation timeline started when FEMA formally adopted this protocol last September. With CAP, any user interface capable of creating CAP-compliant messages can activate any warning device capable of receiving CAP-compliant messages. This includes EAS hardware designed to interrupt broadcast programming for radio, TV and cable for the purpose of issuing an audio (and now text) emergency message. As vendors begin building these standards into their products, it opens new doors for configuring a wide array of warning systems. 

Commercial Mobile Alert System

Another important technological accomplishment within the IPAWS program is the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), which allows for sending text-based alerts to mobile devices in targeted geographic areas without requiring opt-in subscriptions from recipients.

Consider, for example, the challenge of warning citizens about a chemical spill from an overturned tanker on a main freeway artery. Local emergency managers would like to issue a warning to drivers entering the affected area and individuals in nearby homes. Today they likely would use land line phones to issue a targeted alert to homes within the area. Drivers on the highway in a defined geographic region, however, wouldn’t receive this needed warning unless they happened to subscribe to an alert program — and neither would the growing number of residents who discarded their land line phones and rely entirely on mobile devices.

CMAS addresses the challenge by sending alerts through the cellular carrier and transmitting only over cell towers within the targeted area to everyone within range. In most cases the message is not a traditional text messaging (a one-to-one method that, with sufficient volume, can cause major bottlenecks within the carrier network). Instead, the messages are cell broadcast messages (a one-to-many approach). Cell broadcasts “ride” along the carrier’s administrative channel, which is required for the mobile device to remain connected to the cellular network, and are transmitted to everyone active on a given cell tower at once, which means there’s no bottleneck.

CMAS demonstrates how the federal government’s involvement can create advances that might otherwise be impossible, because making this technology work requires the cooperation of all major cellular carriers — something not likely to happen if left to occur on its own.

Another concept associated with IPAWS is the Primary Entry Point (PEP) station — a radio station designated to provide public information before, during and after an emergency, whether national or local. PEP stations will also serve as the daisy chain for station-to-station broadcasts of EAS alerts. These stations are equipped with designated circuits and an emergency generator to ensure broadcasts continue even if power is lost. FEMA helps station owners and operators maintain and restore these facilities.

As certain areas in the nation are still not covered by a PEP station, IPAWS is expanding the number of PEP stations from 37 to 74. Once complete, the full system will encompass 90 percent of the U.S. population.

Though emergency managers may not have direct responsibility for these PEP systems, it is helpful for local agencies to be aware of the additional resource that might be available as new sites are deployed.

A final advancement of direct interest to emergency managers is the Geo-Targeted Alerting System (GTAS), a joint development effort between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the IPAWS program. The map-based GTAS application taps into the administration’s atmospheric condition data to help determine the population impact of a toxic substance release or severe weather event. GTAS can model more than 500 types of hazardous substances and create notification boundaries based on the results. Once an affected area is defined, alerts and warnings can be issued using CAP through whatever means are available.

Implementation Timelines

Published timelines for these IPAWS initiatives are optimistic but potentially realistic. As of Sept. 30, 2010, a 180-day clock started for broadcasters to transition their old analog EAS systems to digital ones. The time frame was short, which was of concern for some broadcasters. The FCC noted industry apprehensions, and extended the deadline 180 days to Sept. 30, 2011. Also expect the PEP station expansion to roll out over the next year. Full implementation of new stations is targeted for the third or fourth quarter of 2011.

CMAS will take a bit longer to implement. For one thing, most mobile devices in the country today don’t have built-in capabilities to receive cellular broadcast messages. New-generation devices do, but it will be at least two years before old devices “turn over” and the majority of devices in the country have this functionality. In the meantime, the IPAWS aggregator and message gateway is being built to receive and disseminate messages properly. This critical middle piece is expected to be released mid- to late 2011, with CMAS being fully functional by the end of 2012.

The vision of an integrated national alert system is a grand one. With determination and support from stakeholders, however, the vision appears to be on target to become reality soon.  k

Lorin Bristow is managing partner with Galain Solutions Inc. Galain offers independent subject-matter expertise on alert and warning practices and technology for public safety agencies, corporations and educational institutions. Its principals Rick Wimberly and Bristow are frequent authors and speakers, and are featured bloggers for Emergency Management magazine (