IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

National Emergency Alert System Goes Live

FEMA’s new Commercial Mobile Alert System broadcasts emergency alert notifications to citizens’ cellphones based on location.

After much anticipation, the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) went live last weekend, a first-of-its-kind national alert system in the U.S. that allows the public to receive major emergency alert notifications on their mobile phones without having to sign up or pay for them.

CMAS is the interface to the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) service that wireless phone carriers will roll out in the U.S. this year. The system was developed through a partnership between the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the FCC and wireless phone carriers to increase public safety nationwide, according to FEMA.

Through the CMAS system, authorized public safety authorities will be able to use FEMA’s Open Platform for Emergency Networks (IPAWS-OPEN) to send geographically specific emergency alert notifications similar to text messages to the public.

Alerts can be a maximum of 90 characters, and in most cases, will only contain basic information such as the type of emergency, when the alert will expire and a recommended course of action. Cellphone carriers will sell mobile phones with the capability to receive CMAS notifications, said Rick Wimberly, president of Galain Solutions Inc., and blogger for Emergency Management magazine, Government Technology’s sister publication. Carriers like AT&T have already provided a list of models that can receive CMAS notifications.

Free Service

Individuals will not be charged to receive the messages, and alerting authorities will not pay wireless phone carriers for sending out the notifications, according to FEMA. The alerts will be sent to mobile phones via broadcast technology to avoid the delay that typically happens during an emergency when wireless voice and data services are “highly congested.”

Three types of messages will be sent to mobile phones: imminent threats, Amber alerts and presidential messages, but according to FEMA, most alerts will be issued by the National Weather Service.

Imminent threats include tornado, tsunami, hurricane, flood and other types of severe weather warnings, all of which will come from the National Weather Service, Wimberly said. For other imminent threats — hazardous materials incidents, for example — alerts may be issued by state and local officials, who must complete a four-step authorization process.

Wimberly said that for officials to get permission to send out the alerts, they must:

1. Identify to FEMA what solution (software) their agency will use to send out the alerts;

2. Apply for a memorandum of agreement with FEMA;

Once FEMA gives permission to use the solution, the application will go back to the state where the agency is located. From there, the state will review the application and decide whether that local alerting authority is of a legitimate public safety agency, then the state makes the final decision for approval; and

The individuals who will actually be activating the approved solution will then go through a training session.

Agencies Get on Board

Almost 20 agencies have received approval from FEMA to send out CMAS alerts, including the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services and the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. As of Tuesday, April 10, another 16 agencies were waiting for approval, according to FEMA. The full list can be seen on the agency’s website.

Besides winning FEMA approval, government agencies will need to prepare the public before they start sending CMAS messages, Wimberly said. Because citizens don’t need to opt in, they may have concerns when they begin receiving the alerts.

“The public will be really pleased with this service, however, it’s also my opinion that there will be a certain amount of misunderstanding and there will be questions that will come up by the public,” Wimberly said.

It’ll be important for state and local agencies to educate the public about the new system to keep concerns or problems to a minimum, he said. For instance, some individuals may want to call 911 when they receive an alert — something they obviously should avoid.

Because the alerts will be brief, they may not provide all the information that citizens need about an emergency situation. The alerts will, however, let citizens know that there is a major situation occurring and that they need to pay attention.

“The biggest thing that needs to be worked out is the educational piece of it,” he said.


Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.