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by Rick Wimberly: Best practices for emergency notification programs

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November 11, 2013

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,


Galain Solutions, Inc.



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November 10, 2013

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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October 24, 2013

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,



Galain Solutions, Inc.

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October 18, 2013

A spokesman for the mobile industry says the new national cell broadcast alert system, Wireless Emergency Alerts, (WEA) will evolve.   The 90 character message limit and geographic targeting appear to be the two areas getting attention.

Christopher Guttman-McCabe of CTIA-The Wireless Association was responding to questions at a recent Congressional hearing on the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) under which WEA operates in collaboration with the carriers.  A member of the House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management asked about the 90 character limits.  Guttman-McCabe said when the carriers and the government were trying to come up with WEA, they decided they needed to “walk before we run”. 

The working group that proposed the rules for WEA (then called Commercial Mobile Alert System) is the FCC’s Communications, Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council (CSRIC).  Guttman-McCabe says the group is looking at three things:

  1. Experiences with WEA since it was first deployed in spring, 2012
  2. Technological advances
  3. Other relevant issues

In addition to the 90 character limit, an issue likely to be addressed is geographic targeting.  The official rules for WEA state that participating carriers must offer targeting to a county level.  But, Guttman-McCabe told the subcommittee that some carriers are already allowing geo-targeting to areas more precise than the county level. 

Presumably, CSRIC will consider comments from the public safety community about WEA, but there was no one from the FCC or FEMA at the hearing because of the government shutdown.

All the best,


Galain Solutions, Inc.

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October 16, 2013

The Palto Alto (CA) Fire Department used their emergency notification system to spread the word about a recent fire department pancake breakfast fundraiser.  But wait, was that a poor choice for use of an alerting system?  No, says Palto Alto Fire Chief Eric Nickel in an article in the San Jose Mercury News

As it turns out, as part of the event, the fire department was going to land a helicopter downtown.  The chief says he wanted people to know the helicopter landing was not an emergency, thus no need to call 9-1-1.  (No calls were received.)  He says he didn't intend to advertise the pancake breakfast, although said a record crowd turned out including some of the local stars like the chairman of Facebook and president of Yahoo.  

Chief Nickel says calls from the notification system went to over 27,000 people and he has received fewer than ten complaints.  One local resident wrote an email to the local paper saying "...blanketing us with communications about a pancake breakfast is not only distracting, it undercuts the value of (the emergency notification system)".

Just guessing here, but what do you want to bet citizen sign-ups for the notification system increased when the article appeared?

All the best,


Galain Solutions, Inc. 

October 15, 2013

The Head of FEMA’s National Continuity Programs Directorate says “every opportunity and available venue” will be used to provide educational and actionable information to the public on IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System).  Damon Penn’s pledge came in written testimony before the House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management.

IPAWS has been criticized in the past by Congress’s General Accounting Office for its outreach efforts.  Penn’s statement said that “while much progress has been made, there is still more to do”.

The wireless industry representative at the hearing obviously agrees with the “more to do” part.  He testified that the wireless industry can and does provide public education on the new national cell broadcast alerting system, Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), and nudged local, state and federal authorities on outreach.  Christopher Guttman-McCabe of CTIA-The Wireless Association said it is “incumbent” on alerting authorities to educate their constituents about the alerts they’re going to issue.  He also said that FEMA and other government agencies “have an important role to play to promote uniform and comprehensive education across all parts of the country and all affected sectors of the emergency response community”.

Much to the chagrin of some of the committee members (see previous post), Penn wasn’t at the hearing in person because of the government shutdown.  However in his written statement prepared before the shutdown, he laid out a number of IPAWS outreach initiatives:

  • Release of radio and TV Public Service Announcements on WEA
  • Roll-out of an on-line course, “IPAWS and the American People”
  • Incorporation of IPAWS and WEA information on Ready.gov
  • Providing informational resources for local and state public safety agencies for their own efforts
  • Demonstration of IPAWS capabilities including vendor-provided solutions
  • Hosting webinars on best practices, the IPAWS program, and private industry solutions that work with IPAWS
  • Assistance to public safety officials with their IPAWS applications
  • Helping alerting authorities update public alert and warning plans
  • Exploring consistent alerting codes and symbology
  • Partnering with access and functional needs groups to better understand alert and warning gaps
  • Hosting, along with FEMA’s Office of Disability Integration and Coordination, roundtables on accessibility of alerts
  • Publishing white paper, “Alerting the Whole Community:  Removing Barriers to Alerting Accessibility

Penn’s statement said as of mid-September, 33 states, two territories, and 163 local agencies have become IPAWS Alerting Authorities, and 11 states and 160 local agencies are in the application process.

All in all, a good overview of IPAWS outreach activities with acknowledgement that more work needs to be done.  You can watch the full hearing here.  Don't expect to see any of the sub-committee members addressing funding for these efforts.  But, you'll see them spend a good bit of time complaining about the shut-down and the “other party’s” stubbornness.  

Watch for other posts from the hearing, including topics like:  Avoiding over-alerting, addressing issues with WEA, the Emergency Alert System (EAS), FM chips in cell phones for emergencies, and IPAWS success stories.

All the best,


Galain Solutions, Inc.

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October 08, 2013

There was quite a ruckus October 2nd at a Congressional hearing on FEMA and its Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).  But, the emotional exchanges had nothing to do with IPAWS, but rather the government shut-down.    

There was no FEMA representative at the hearing because of the shut-down.  That set off some members of the House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management.  They weren't angry at FEMA, but with the shut-down itself.  Andre' Carson (D-IN) said the hearing shouldn't even have been held without a FEMA representative there.  Congressman Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) called Carson's suggestion "absurd" and "ridiculous".  Representative Donna Edwards (D-MD) called holding the hearing "unacceptable" and a "pretense".  Then, she said it's unacceptable that a "small band of renegades have shut the government down".

OK, enough of that.  There was actually useful and interesting information on alerts at the hearing.  FEMA provided written testimony, produced prior to the shut-down.  And, impressive representatives of the broadcast and cable industry were there.  

We'll break down the some of the topics in a series of posts in the next few days, including:

  • IPAWS Outreach:  a pledge that IPAWS will use "every opportunity and available venue to provide educational and actionable information to the American people".
  • Evolution of Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA):  Indications that some of the issues raised about WEA could be addressed, including geo-targeting.
  • The Emergency Alert System (EAS):  The broadcast representative testified that it's "unacceptable that some local emergency managers remain unaware of the benefits of EAS, or how and when to trigger an EAS alert".
  • Avoiding over-alerting:  Discussion about how to avoid de-sensitizing the public to IPAWS alerts.
  • Success Stories:  In both written and personal testimony, success stories related to IPAWS alerting initiatives were cited.

You can watch a video of the hearing here.  Be patient with it, though.  After the heated discussion, perhaps grandstanding, there's actually some useful information.

All the best,


Galain Solutions, Inc.


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October 02, 2013

The United Kingdom is conducting tests to find out what the US is learning through practical application.  In three areas of the UK, a trial is being conducted this fall  of a mobile device alert system similar to Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) in the U.S.  

The UK's Cabinet Office says some 50,000 people could receive the test alerts by being within range of cell towers for three mobile providers in the areas of Yorkshire, Suffolk and Glasgow.  Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude says they want to test the technology, and see how the public reacts when they receive an emergency alert on their phones.  An online survey and focus groups will be used to determine public reaction.

Like in the US, the public will not need to sign up for the alerts and the government won't know exactly who receives them.

Two approaches are being tested.  One is "cell broadcast" which is most similar to WEA in the US.  The other is similar to traditional SMS messaging which is used for emergency alerts throughout the US, particularly in higher education.


The UK Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CSS), which is conducting the trials, says evaluations will be made from three perspectives:

  1. mobile industry input on technical and corporate implications
  2. public views on message content, delivery method, and resulting behavior
  3. emergency responder views on resources, training, effective use and enhancements to current situations

A report on the test findings will be released in 2014. 

All the best,


Galain Solutions, Inc.

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September 30, 2013

Here's something we're beginning to see more often:  Bids by state and local publci safety agencies, insistent on vendors being to connected to national alerting initiatives, like FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning  System (IPAWS).

Here's a recent one from the State of Nevada that tells the story well.  The Division of Emergency Management released a Request for Information (RFI) for a "software portal for originating and sending public alert and warning messages on an integrated state with planning, sending, tracking and analysing messaging to users using multiple communications channels".  The RFI specifically requested:

  • Interoperable COG to COG capability:  helps facilitate communications through IPAWS between different organizations that make up a Collaborative Operating Group (COG), the label given groups of organizations that sign up together to use IPAWS.
  • Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) (since renamed Wireless Emergency Alerts - WEA) authoring interface:  software tools that allow alerting authorities to compose and send messages via IPAWS to the national cell alert system WEA. 
  • IPAWS Retrieval/Dissemination:  Electronically polls the IPAWS system to retrieve and/or disseminate alerts.

And, this is but one requirements document with IPAWS language.  In fact, an emergency notification vendor told me recently that he rarely sees a bid request from a public safety agency that does not contain some type of IPAWS requirement.  

By golly, it's catching on.

By the way, if you need help with bid language, let us know.

All the best,


Galain Solutions, Inc.

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September 26, 2013

Twitter has announced that it is offering a new service through which the public can get alerts from federal, state, and local organizations.  It's really quite simple.  Government organizations can enroll in the program by submitting an on-line application to Twitter and agreeing to make security adjustments on their Twitter accounts.  Then, there's a special process for sending the alerts via Twitter.  They'll show up differently than other Tweets, depending on the mobile device being used.

Twitter says it will give priority access to:

  1. law enforcement and public safety
  2. emergency management
  3. city and municipal governments, their agencies and representatives
  4. county and regional agencies providing services to cities and municipalities
  5. certain state, federal and national agencies and NGOs (For example, the American Red Cross is enrolled.)

The public has to sign up if they want to participate.  It, too, is a simple process - just a few steps as outlined on a Twitter blog post here.  However, the public apparently will need to sign up for each individual organization's alerts.  For example, here is the link for signing up for FEMA alerts.

Among the organizations participating so far:

  • American Red Cross
  • FEMA and Ready.gov
  • NOAA
  • U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Interior
  • State emergency management agencies in Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, South Carolina,  and Virginia
  • Local emergency management agencies in New York City, Boston, New Orleans, Miami, Colorado Springs
  • Fire departments in Los Angeles County and Colorado Springs, 
  • El Paso County Sheriff's Office and Public Health

A list of participating organizations can be found on the Twitter web site here.  The page includes the links for signing up for alerts from the various organizations.

Twitter tries to make it clear that Twitter Alerts do not replace official emergency notification systems or services, but rather should be used as a complementary channel of information. (Twitter places such a disclaimer in bold letters in its outreach material.)

Despite the fact that public sign-up is simple, the public will still need to feel motivated to register for alerts from the various participating organizations.  You would think (and hope) that Twitter's obvious success in spreading the word about their services would help.  Plus, participating organizations will be spreading the word, too.  It will be real interesting to watch this grow, and to find out how receptive the public has been.

All the best,


Galain Solutions, Inc.




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