Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

What Emergency Managers Need to Know About CMAS

The Commercial Mobile Alert System uses modern technology to deliver emergency alerts to targeted audiences.

Methods for the government to alert citizens in case of emergency once consisted of warning sirens and messages broadcast over the radio and TV. But the emergence of mobile technology brought with it the promise of delivering more information to targeted audiences.

“The future of public notification is through cell broadcasting,” said Joseph Bruno, commissioner of the New York City Office of Emergency Management.

In recent years, emergency managers have been able to alert people through phone calls to land lines in particular locations. But the alerting system hasn’t quite kept up with mobile technology — and now, some people are giving up their land lines altogether.

The latest development in the government’s efforts to alert citizens about emergencies is the Commercial Mobile Alert System, or CMAS. It is meant to bring emergency alerts up-to-date with the latest technology. And although the system still faces challenges, officials say it’s off to a promising start.

“As technology changed and our mobility changed tremendously, there have been new challenges,” said Lorin Bristow, managing partner of Galain Solutions, an alerts and warning consultancy based in Franklin, Tenn.

CMAS is part of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, which is an office within FEMA that was created by a 2006 executive order to be sure the president could communicate with the American public during an emergency. “It really sought to take what has been the Emergency Alert System to another level,” said Bristow, who also blogs for Emergency Management magazine.

The system addresses several problems: the growth of mobile devices, the fact that people are abandoning land lines and the difficulty of getting people to subscribe to mobile alerts, Bristow said.

“Our real emphasis is on being able to reach as many people as we can by multiple means,” said Damon Penn, assistant administrator for national continuity programs at FEMA.

CMAS can send three types of alerts: presidential alerts, Amber Alerts and notifications of an imminent life-threatening situation. The alerts show up as text messages, and CMAS will be known by the public as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). Individuals can check their phones to see if it’s WEA-enabled. Users can opt out of receiving all but the presidential alerts.

The system uses the same technology that cellphones use to connect to cellphone towers. It does not rely on the regular text message network, so sending the messages won’t overload regular communications. “This uses connections between your phone and the cell tower that are already going on,” Bristow said.

Alerts can be sent by the president, state or local emergency managers, or the National Weather Service. Local emergency managers need approval to get the authority to send the messages. Approval comes from the state emergency agency and requires training plus the technological capability to connect to the FEMA system to actually send the message, Bristow said.

When an emergency management office has an alert to send about a local imminent threat to life and safety, it would create a message and send it to the aggregator, the federal gatekeeper for messages created by FEMA and the FCC, Bruno said.

According to Penn, messages need to meet three requirements to be sent: They must be urgent, severe and certain.

For a local government to be certified requires numerous steps, including completing training on how to use the system. The state emergency manager decides if a local authority has qualified.

FEMA has a website for local agencies to help with the process of becoming certified: www.fema.gov/emergency/ipaws/alerting_authorities.shtm. The training is online and done through FEMA, Penn said.

One of the issues is that only newer cellphones can receive CMAS messages. It’s expected that it will take 12 to 18 months for a majority of the population to have phones that will receive the alerts, Bristow said. And even then, there will still be people with older phones who will not receive the messages.

The official rollout for CMAS was in April, so it hasn’t yet been tested during a major emergency. In New York City, a live pilot started on Jan. 1, after a test in December.

New York City is on the leading edge of implementing the system. “It gives them a capability that they didn’t have before,” Penn said.

Four main carriers — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — were engaged in the test, Bruno said.

Margaret Steen  |  Contributing Writer

Margaret Steen is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.

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