IPAWS Emergency Alert Test Sent Out by Accident in Florida

The calls that were received originated from a Tallahassee-based Florida Division of Emergency Management number due to a default mode in the software. The testing provided valuable information about the system.

by Ryan Ballogg, The Bradenton Herald / November 27, 2019
TNS

(TNS) — Many Manatee County residents received a call or text on Monday that mentioned IPAWS — the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.

The IPAWS system is operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and used by federal, state and local authorities to communicate with the public in times of emergency.

However, IPAWS alerts appear on cell phones as a pop-up box accompanied by a loud alert tone, according to IPAWS deputy director Wade Witmer — not as a text message or phone call.

“The test was not sent by FEMA and did not use the IPAWS alert distribution channels,” Witmer said in an email.

Manatee County residents took to social media to post about getting unexpected calls and texts about IPAWS on Monday morning.

An automated message left on a Bradenton Herald voice machine at 10:18 a.m. said “The IPAWS System,” before hanging up.

The call originated from 850-413-9969, a Florida Division of Emergency Management number based in Tallahassee.

A screenshot of a text message posted to Facebook read: “This is a test of the IPAWS system. Reply YES to confirm receipt.”

Google searches for the term “IPAWS” spiked in Bradenton and Manatee County, and some who received the call were concerned it was a scam, according to the social media posts.

The messages received by residents were legitimate, though. They were sent during a local test of a new statewide alert system, according to Manatee County Emergency Management Division Chief Steve Litschauer.

The new system ties into IPAWS, according to Litschauer, but is for local and state use.

Litschauer said training was being conducted on new software on Monday when the messages were inadvertently sent out.

“It was not meant to go to the public,” Litschauer said. “But it was just what it said: a test.”

The training and testing provided valuable information about the new system, Litschauer said, including the accidental public alert.

The calls that were received originated from a Tallahassee-based Florida Division of Emergency Management number due to a default mode in the software.

“The test identified some things to get with the (software) vendors about, and those issues have been corrected,” Litschauer said.

The new statewide system is one more way that officials can reach residents in times of emergency.

“Manatee County also has access and permission to use the FEMA IPAWS system to send wireless emergency alerts to cell phones inside the Manatee County borders,” Witmer said.

FEMA began developing its alert system in 2006, and it had its first nationwide test in 2011.

It has been tested nationally five times, most recently on Aug. 7. No further nationwide tests have been announced.

“The national tests assess IPAWS message delivery pathways, and encourage communication and strengthen relationships between the broadcast, wireless and emergency management communities,” FEMA’s website says. “Ultimately, the information obtained from the tests increase awareness, understanding, and adoption of IPAWS by all partners and the public.”

Almost all cell phones sold in the U.S. are capable of receiving wireless emergency alert messages like those sent through IPAWS, according to Witmer, and no sign-up is required.

“No matter where they may be traveling in the US, their phone will receive alerts relevant only for that geographic area, from authorized agencies in that area,” Witmer said.

Phone settings can be adjusted to opt out of receiving the alerts, but Witner said he strongly encourages leaving the settings on to receive important emergency information.

To find out more about IPAWS, visit fema.gov/integrated-public-alert-warning-system.

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©2019 The Bradenton Herald (Bradenton, Fla.)

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