Today (Monday) is the anniversary of the AMBER Alert program. It was 18 years ago when AMBER Alert was created in Texas after nine-year-old Amber Hagerman was kidnapped and murdered. Results have been amazing. Hundreds of children across the country have been returned to safety as a direct result of AMBER Alerts (officially, America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response).
Emergency managers and the alerting industry should be proud of the roles they've played in AMBER Alerts. The program is getting stronger every day. Broadcasters continue to play a vital and growing part, and the mobile carriers are now helping through Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA).
Although there are many parts to AMBER Alerts, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children takes the lead, and does an excellent job.
All the best,
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A few weeks ago, FEMA and DHS published a Request for Information (RFI) for possibly outsourcing data services for the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). (See our earlier post here.) Strong language was used expressing concern for the infrastructure on which IPAWS works. At least one of the web postings, which was shared by others, misinterpretted the RFI and stated, "Federal emergemncy managers are considering replacing their current custom-built system for notifying the public about emergencies...".
Antwane Johnson, the IPAWS Director, has assured IPAWS stakeholders that "the IPAWS Program is not seeking to replace or outsource IPAWS services". Instead, it's the IT infrastructure that supports IPAWS being looked at, not IPAWS services.
The infrastructure is managed by FEMA's Office of the Chief Information Officer. The CIO's office wants to make sure the infrastructure "is robust, reliable and economical". Thus, the reason for the RFI - to see if commercial sources are available that could help the infrastructure.
Johnson wants to assure IPAWS stakeholders that IPAWS does not anticipate the need to make changes to the alert system's input or output interfaces that stakeholders use to make the system work.
Well, we could certainly see why stakeholders would be concerned. Many of them have invested significant time and money to make IPAWS work. A major change would not sit well with them. But, it seems a major change is not in the works. Stakeholders should keep an eye open, but not panic. Keep moving forward.
Besides, in our opinion, the proof is in the pudding. IPAWS may not be perfect, but success stories are accumulating about lives being saved and children being found because of IPAWS alerts, including the national mobile alert system Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) and enhanced Emergency Alert System (EAS).
It is refreshing that the CIO's office is looking for a stronger infrastructure for IPAWS, including looking at the commercial world for "mature commercial software solutions" and "commercial hosting solutions" with ability to reliably host IPAWS. Not a bad thing at all, including for the stakeholders. In fact, the stronger the infrastructure, the better service to the stakeholders and the American public.
All the best,
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The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) again took the top positions in alerting stories of the year. The news was both good and bad.
1. The good news (and it’s very good news) is that the IPAWS Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system created impressive success stories by helping save lives and finding missing children. National Public Radio aired a segment where a minister in Illinois told of his congregation receiving tornado warnings on their mobile devices via WEA. 400 worshipers were led to shelter, avoiding an overpassing tornado. The minister called the alerts “the saving grace”. (See earlier post here.)
This is progress, real progress. Meantime, impressive stories were told of children being safely recovered based on information from AMBER Alerts issued through WEA.
We could probably stop here because no other alerting development during the year came near the magnitude of IPAWS success stories. But, we’ll go on…
2. The bad news about IPAWS is that serious concerns have surfaced about its technical infrastructure. FEMA is so concerned that they have publicly stated that IPAWS cannot be supported by the existing FEMA and DHS infrastructures, and the risk of the architecture is “too great for IPAWS and our nation”. On the plus side, FEMA is trying to do something about it. They recently released a Request for Information to hunt for commercially available solutions. (See our post here.)
Other bad IPAWS news relates to the level of funding. Despite the demonstrated successes, the program is funded at around $10,000,000 per year…not much for an initiative with such a clear return in saving lives, protecting resources, and saving local communities money. Plus, IPAWS still exists because of an old Presidential Executive Order, and not law set by Congress. A couple of pieces of legislation are in play to correct this, but funding could still be a big issue. We now know that serious infrastructure concerns exist, and outreach has been very limited. There are still key stakeholders and the public who aren’t aware of what IPAWS can do for them.
3. Meantime, local communities continue to work toward enhancing their own alerting efforts. Despite the availability of the WEA cell broadcast alert system at virtually no cost, locals seem to understand that WEA and other IPAWS initiatives only complement their existing efforts.
4. That’s the good news. The bad news is that local communities still struggle to get the public to sign up for alerting initiatives. The most successful sign-up program we’ve seen this year is a client who asked people to register for alerts at the same time they were signing up for something else they needed. People need to be nudged to sign up, and it must be convenient. We don’t think the public is hesitant to sign up, just not motivated to do it…until something bad happens or creative encouragement is used.
5. The Emergency Alert System (EAS) made news in 2013. Again, there was good and bad. The good was expressed in an FCC report that said EAS is “basically sound”. The bad came from a zombie attack announced via EAS by someone who hacked into a TV station’s EAS system and issued a phony alert. As it turns out, there were no zombies and the vulnerability was quickly discovered and fixed.
There was other good/bad news on EAS in 2013. The good was the beginning of the discussion about how WEA can complement emergency communications efforts of radio and TV stations. Even though WEA comes from broadcasters’ competitors in the cell industry, the two can work together as evidenced in a webinar we co-produced showing the synergy. (See our earlier post here, which includes a link to the short webinar.) The bad news is that, still, many broadcasters don’t see why it’s in their best interests to tout WEA on the air. Perhaps progress can be made in 2014.
6. There seems to have been progress during the year on alerting people with disabilities. Of most significance was a report from Wireless RERC (Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center) at Georgia Tech that showed which communications channels are preferred by people with disabilities for receiving, confirming, and sharing public alerts. TV was at the top of the list. Most interesting, however, was that text messaging moved from sixth place in 2011 to second place in 2013. Email was third. A phone call was forth. The good news is that all four of these channels are getting stronger every day. Meantime, FEMA recently awarded a contract to Wireless RERC to go deeper into alerting people with disabilities.
7. In a related development in 2013, FEMA released a paper called “Alerting the Whole community: Removing Barriers to Alerting Accessibility”. It showed how IPAWS addresses the challenge of reaching what FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate likes to call the “Whole Community”. The paper can be found here on the FEMA website. (In the interest of full disclosure, we must report that we helped FEMA prepare the report.)
8. Twitter got into the alerting business in 2013, and launched Twitter Alerts. Certain organizations can sign up to offer their followers alerting capability through Twitter. As you would expect considering the source, the announcement generated a lot of buzz. We signed up for alerts from several organizations (FEMA, Red Cross, DHS), but it appears we get all of their Tweets, not just alerts. You can read about Twitter Alerts from our post here. Or, go to the Twitter Alerts blog.
9. Back to IPAWS, there were significant changes in Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) in 2013. First of all, Wireless Emergency Alerts became the official name of the initiative, as opposed to the earlier name of Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS). Secondly, the organization that supports the wireless industry indicated changes are ahead. In Congressional testimony, Christopher Guttman-McCabb of CTIA-The Wireless Association said the FCC council that proposed rules for WEA (then CMAS) will look at other changes. The 90 character message limit and ability to more precisely target alerts are expected to be discussed. See our post here.
10. Colleges and universities made nice progress getting their alerting acts together. Many seem to have adjusted their initial reaction to Virginia Tech of rushing out to rely on text systems to alert. Now, a more comprehensive approach with use of more channels seems to be the norm. Plus, the texting offerings have improved, thanks to creative vendors who have figured out how to get special provisions for emergency alerts.
It was a rather eventful year, with nice progress made. Yet, some of the nagging questions remain. Like, how do you get people to sign up? How do you sort through the maze of vendor offerings? How do you ensure that your alerting initiative goes beyond technology and really delivers success? How do you pay for your alerting program? How do you help the public understand what you’re doing for alerting and what they need to do about it? How do you keep up with changing communications preferences? And, I could go on.
Finally, thanks to all who’ve made this another successful year for Galain – our clients, our consultants, our staff, our friends, our families and our colleagues who, whether they realize it or not, constantly keep us engaged and moving forward.
Happy New Year, and watch for our upcoming post looking ahead at the new year.
Saying the risk of the current architecture is "too great for IPAWS and our nation", FEMA is asking for help to strengthen the technical infrastructure supporting the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). FEMA says the risks could contribute to an event with "a disasterous impact with unimaginable local, regional or national consequences". FEMA says the current system has "actually disabled IPAWS's responsivement and flexibility at times and prevented IPAWS from carrying out its mission" of ensuring the President can alert the American people and supporting federal, state, and local warning needs.
The strong, candid language is contained within a Request for Information (RFI) FEMA issued to find "best methods for providing a highly reliable and highly available application and data center services" supporting IPAWS. The RFI states IPAWS cannot be supported by the existing FEMA and DHS infrastructures. So, FEMA wants to know if there are "mature commercial software solutions" and "commercial hosting solutions" with ability to reliably host IPAWS.
The serious concerns about the infrastructure are released at the end of a year when IPAWS created a number of success stories. The Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system, a part of IPAWS, has been credited with saving lives and finding missing children through its ability to send emergency text messages to mobile devices. Other IPAWS programs include the Emergency Alert System (EAS), the national radio/TV alerting system.
All the best,
You would think that a world where people are so accessible through so many communications channels would be a world where emergency alerts and mass notifications would be simple. Not so. In fact, because people are so accessible has made emergency alerts and mass notifications more complicated. All types of questions abound like, how do we...
- select communications channels?
- make the public aware of how they're going to be alerted?
- help the public understand what to do when they're alerted?
- make sure we're using the right vendors?
- manage this maze effectively when an emergency is at hand?
- make sure the whole community, including people with disabilities, limited English proficiency and older adults, are alerted?
- pay for all of this?
And, we could go on.
We're curious about which topics surrounding this maze are really the most important and interesting to you. In other words, which ones would we all benefit by having more information on? So, we're conducting a survey and are asking for your help by completing the survey at this link. When we get the results, we're going to publish here and elsewhere, a five part informational series on the topics you've chosen. It will be available to, well, anyone who wants it with no obligation.
The survey won't take but a very few minutes. (We promise.) And, you'll see that there's a place where you can add topics of your own that we've not listed. And, please, feel free to pass it along to anyone else who you think would like to have input.
We're committed to stronger alerts for stronger communities, and hope that, with your assistance, this informational series will help get us closer.
All the best,
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When major storms hit the Midwest Sunday morning, the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system sprang into action issuing mass notification cell phone text alerts from the National Weather Service. Eight people were killed, but media reports say many have expressed "shock" that the death toll wasn't higher. The WEA messages to cell devices are being credited, along with early forecasting by the National Weather Service.
National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" aired a segment this morning (Tuesday) featuring a Methodist minister in Illinois telling the story of his congregation receiving the alerts during service. He said, "Suddenly, everybody's cell phones started buzzing at the same time." When the alerts were issued, the minister said he and other staff herded about 400 worshipers to a storm shelter room. They heard the locomotion sounding tornado pass over, destroying buildings only yards away. No one at the church was hurt. The pastor called the alert, "the saving grace". (You can hear the NPR report here.)
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A grad student in Canada is asking emergency management personnel for some help. Phil Jewell of the Royal Roads University in British Columbia would like you to complete a study on early warning systems. You can find the survey here.
The questions are quite thorough. Among other things, he's asking about your reliance on certain notification channels. I particularly like this one, "If financial and politicial considerations could be ignored, what system would you like to see implemented and used within your jurisdiction?" He also asks about difficulties reaching certain population segments, and differences of approaches dependent upon the problem at hand.
Phil says he'll openly share the results of his study, and we'll post it here.
The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) has been operating for years without laws that make its mission clear. It's authority has come from Presidential Executive Order, but not Congressional authority. Several attempts have been made to pass IPAWS legislation, but they've not succeeded. A new approach is being tried. This time, IPAWS legislation is being proposed as part of the bill that reauthorizes FEMA.
The IPAWS language is similar to the prior attempts. It requires much of the functionality that IPAWS currently offers through its initiatives such as the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). The language also makes it law that nationwide tests of public alert and warning systems be conducted at least every three years. As it stands, there's only been one nationwide test of the one of the IPAWS initiatives; the first-ever nationwide test of EAS was conducted in November of 2011. WEA, the cell broadcast alert system, has never been tested nationally.
The bill would also require that an advisory committee be established to make recommendations on such things as:
- protocols, standards, terminology, and operating procedures
- alerting based on geographic location
- alerting individuals with disabilities and limited English proficiency
- future technologies
- partnerships to enhance community preparedness
A limit of $12.7-million would be placed on IPAWS spending each year.
The FEMA Reauthorization Act of 2013 is before the full House and Senate.
All the best,
Authorities in Springdale, Arkansas say someone has been calling local residents and tell them they will no longer get weather alerts from the city without paying a fee. The caller claims to work for the city, then tells residents that they've got to provide financial information (including credit card numbers) to continue receiving weather alerts.
Springdale does offer a notification system for the public, but they don't charge for it. Authorities say they'll charge the caller with serious crimes even if residents don't turn over their financial information.
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A Congressional sub-committee recently heard dramatic success stories on Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), the cell broadcast alerting system that’s been active for over a year. In the hearing on FEMA and the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), under which WEA operates, a wireless industry representative testified that WEA has proven to be a “game changer” for emergency managers.
The success stories told of children being recovered because of info from WEA, weather disasters being averted, and of a better informed public during a bombing scare.
Christopher Guttman-McCabe of CTIA-The Wireless Association testified that thousands of WEAs have been issued “and many have played a key role in protecting the public”. He noted that carriers serving 98% of wireless consumers in the U.S. are participating in the WEA initiative.
Guttman-McCade then told the story of 29 kids in Connecticut being led to a shelter by a camp counselor who had received an alert via WEA about an approaching tornado. Moments later, the sports dome where there were minutes earlier was destroyed by the tornado.
He talked about two young sisters being taken from their mother at gunpoint in Pennsylvania recently. After receiving an AMBER Alert on her mobile device, a hotel patron spotted the abductor’s car and alerted police. The youngsters were safe. The suspect was arrested.
Damon Penn of FEMA provided written testimony (since he wasn’t allowed to attend in person because of the shut-down) that the first time WEA was used for an AMBER Alert, a teenager who received the alert gave police a tip that led to the recovery of an eight-month-old.
Then, he told recounted a story about a student in North Carolina receiving an AMBER Alert on her device on a Thursday night, then, the next day seeing the vehicle, hearing a baby crying, and alerting police. A 17-month-old baby was saved. Penn said The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the AMBER Alert people, have acknowledged the role of IPAWS in recovering missing children by presenting FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate with an award.
Penn’s written testimony also told the story about New York City officials using WEA to issue evaluation orders in specific zones during Hurricane Sandy. Then, as the situation changed, alerts were issued through WEA for take shelter advisories, stay-off-the-streets orders, and a request to only use 9-1-1 for emergencies.
Penn also reported on the Boston Marathon bombings. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) used WEA to alert the public of changes in the shelter in place order as authorities searched for one of the two who placed the bomb at the start-gate. (See post here on how MEMA worked with local media when activating WEA messages.)
If these anecdotes resonated with members of the House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management, it was hard to tell. Much of the members' comments were about who was responsible for the government shut-down that kept federal officials from appearing at the hearing in person.
However, one of the members did ask good questions about the possibility of over-alerting, the topic of a future post. Previous posts on the hearing covered an evolution of WEA (found here), a FEMA pledge on outreach (found here), and on emotional outbursts at the hearing over the government shutdown (found here).
All the best,
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