Last week, California State Senator Alex Padilla introduced legislation to create a statewide earthquake early warning system. At a press conference in Los Angeles, Padilla and scientists from Caltech, UC Berkeley, and U.S. Geological Survey discussed the need for such a warning system based upon a recently-published study “concluding for the first time that a statewide California earthquake involving both the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas may be possible.”
Padilla said, “California is going to have an earthquake early warning system, the question is whether we have one before or after the next big quake.”
According to a press release following the event, the system would build upon the California Integrated Seismic Network. Seismologists envision a system that would monitor sensors throughout the state. The system would detect the strength and the progression of earthquakes, alerting the public with up to 60 seconds advanced warning before the ground begins shaking.
The initial cost estimate for the system is $80 million. Padilla said that with the magnitude 6.7 Northridge Earthquake claiming 60 lives and causing at least $13 billion in damage, the system is an intelligent investment.
The Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast released in 2008 predicted a 99.7 % likelihood of a magnitude 6.7 earthquake in California in the next 30 years and a 94% chance of a magnitude 7.0.
From our perspective, it’s exciting to see the technology progressing to a point where pre-earthquake warnings could become a reality. We do hope the system will take advantage of emerging technologies and integration standards, and not be developed as a “one off” solution. While the price tag is significant, the potential lifesaving impact could be substantial.
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A private equity firm has purchased yet another alert and warning company, bringing to four their acquisitions in the industry. While exact numbers aren’t available, it’s likely the company now has more users than all of their competitors…combined.
The private equity firm is The Riverside Company, with headquarters in New York City and 20 offices scattered around the world. Riverside’s adventures in this industry began in October of 2011 with acquisition of Emergency Communications Network (ECN) of Ormond Beach, Florida, whose primary notification service is known as CodeRED. ECN’s most recent acquisition is Jacosoft, which provides a solution called DeltAlert. In mid-2012, ECN and Riverside bought both CityWatch and the clients of One Call Now’s Government Emergency Center.
All four of the companies now operate under the ECN banner, led by President David DiGiacomo. He says DeltAlert, CityWatch, and Jacosoft customers are being transferred to the CodeRED platform. DiGiacomo says the acquisitions and consolidations have been good for customers of the various companies. He says ECN has “made a lot of effort to make sure the clients come first in these transactions, making sure the clients will view this as a good thing, and honoring commitments that are out there.” Riverside partner Chris Jones says acquisitions “have to work for the customers for them to be successful.” He says all of the sellers wanted to make sure their customers were taken care of.
DiGiacomo and Jones are bullish on the future of ECN, and the industry itself. DiGiacomo says there are still many potential customers who haven’t purchased an alerting system, perhaps because they haven’t had a serious enough local event to spur them to action. DiGiacomo says he’s also seeing an increase in the use of these types of systems for non-emergency purposes, road closings and other events that affect the public.
DiGiacomo is not concerned about facing competition from the new national alerting systems available from FEMA. In fact, he says his people have been working closely with the FEMA people to integrate ECN products with FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). He says ECN solutions can get much more granular with alerting than IPAWS will ever become. “They complement one another”, he says. That’s one of reasons his company has been promoting IPAWS among their customers and explaining to them why they would have a CodeRED system with an IPAWS button on it.
All the best,
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We've had a chance to sample life first-hand in the CMAS (Commercial Mobile Alert System) world. In middle Tennessee where we live, the weather has been threatening. We've had flood, tornado, and ice storm warnings in the last three days. Having such a diversity of weather events in a short period is not unheard of in this neck of the woods. Here's what's new: people all over the place are talking about, even wondering about, unusual behavior by their cell phones caused by the weather. It’s been heard in restaurants, churches, even on our morning run.
Yesterday, Lorin and I were having lunch in a crowded restaurant talking about, you guessed it, FEMA's IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System) program. Suddenly, weird tones came from my cell phone and an emergency alert about an ice storm warning popped up. A few seconds later, the same thing happened to Lorin's phone. (My cell carrier must be a bit faster.) A noticeable hush came over the restaurant as people all over the room were receiving the same alerts, reading them, and then talking about, not only the weather, but the unusual behavior of their phones. Who was sending them the alerts, and who signed them up for them? (I felt in the know since I knew the answers and they didn't.)
Sunday morning around 5am, I received my first ever CMAS alert. Even being an “in the know” kinda guy, at least on this subject, I hadn’t heard the unique tones before. It took a bit for me to wake up and realize what was going on.
This morning, one of my running buddies struck up a conversation about her priest talking about the alerts during Sunday service.
Meantime, one of my Facebook friends in Florida struck up quite a string of comments over the weekend asking questions about receiving an odd AMBER Alert on her cell phone. Some were questioning why the alert didn't provide a web site for more info. They had to go on the internet and find details themselves. (I again felt in the know as I posted that regulations prohibit the use of web sites in the alerts.)
Now, you may not care about my personal experiences…but, there are a couple of points to the stories. One, CMAS is reaching the public, people are talking about it, and asking questions. You may not have had so many weather events in your area to see the activity first hand, but you eventually will. The National Weather Service is using the system often for warnings. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has recently started using the system for AMBER Alerts, and the list is growing for more state and local authorities to obtain authority to use the system. You'll be able to answer the questions (and feel in-the-know, too). If you can't answer the questions, check out the IPAWS web site, our Galain web site, or see our blog posts and other articles in Emergency Management magazine. In an ideal world, the federal government would have an aggressive advertising campaign promoting the program to the public. That’s not likely. Heck, we don’t even know if the federal government will be operating in a few weeks. So, it will be up to local in-the-know types to spread the word.
Here’s the second point: Although people were questioning the source of the alerts (including the asleep me at five on a Sunday morning), it seems they were doing what the alerts wanted them to do. The people in the restaurant were clearly more tuned in to the impending ice storm, and starting changing their afternoon plans. Getting a flood warning, even at five in the morning, is important stuff in my neighborhood where 100 homes were flooded a few years ago. I certainly got up and checked the level of the river I can see from my kitchen window. And, my friends in Florida did exactly what the AMBER alert on their cell phones was intended to do, get their attention and stir them to seek more info…even if it wasn’t clear where to turn to get the info.
The CMAS system (known by cell carriers as Wireless Emergency Alerts and by the iPhone world as Government Alerts) is not perfect. But, if these first-hand experiences over the last few days are any indication, the system is beginning to be effective…at least for weather warnings and AMBER alerts. It will be interesting to see local and state agencies start issuing cell alerts for other types of imminent threats, as word spreads that they can do so. And, if the last few days in middle Tennessee are any indication, word is going to spread.
All the best,
A federal alerting program starts clicking and gets tested in a Super Storm; citizens still don’t sign up for alerts; and the weather service uses powerful language in foul weather. These are some of the things that caught our eyes in the world of alerts and notifications in 2012.
IPAWS Tipping Point
We begin with what we think is the most ambitious alerting project ever anywhere - the U.S. government’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) program operated by FEMA. You’d have to be asleep during this last year to have missed the fact that, after years of being in the works, IPAWS has started using new ways to alert people.
The tipping point occurred in June when the National Weather Service (NWS) started issuing certain warnings through the IPAWS cell broadcast program - officially, the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), but also known as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), or Government Alerts. Without having to sign up, and probably not even knowing they were going to get them, some of the public started receiving weather warnings on their mobile devices. The alerts (or WEAs - pronounced “weez” - as the mobile industry calls them) showed up unlike any other messages received on a mobile device. They were broadcast from cell towers, so that any properly equipped mobile device in the area could receive them. Yes, there are caveats. Not all mobile devices receive WEAs...but, as 2012 progressed, so did the number of WEA-devices in the public’s hands. In fact, lots of buzz occurred when it became clear that Apple had included WEA-capability in the new iPhones. (Apple calls it “Government Alerts”.)
While weather warnings started mid-year, as the year ended, the first use of CMAS/WEA/Government Alerts for an AMBER Alert occurred. The alert was activated to help find a young boy who police say was abducted in the San Antonio area by his father after the father allegedly killed the boy’s mother’s estranged boyfriend. The boy has been found, and is safe.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has been operating what they call “The Wireless AMBER Alert program” for a number of years. But, as of the end of the year, the wireless program ended while NCMEC transitions to the IPAWS WEA/CMAS program. AMBER Alerts are one of only three types of alerts that may be sent via WEAs. The others are imminent threats (such as NWS warnings and local/state originated alerts), and Presidential emergency messages.
As the Weather Service and NCMEC started using the IPAWS mobile alerting system, IPAWS started spreading the word about how local and state agencies could also take advantage of the service. A “call-to-action” was issued, and a process unveiled for state and local agencies to also get authority to issue alerts through IPAWS. As of 12/28/2012, 86 agencies had been giving alerting authority and almost one hundred have applications pending. Some of them have started public information campaigns to let the public know about new capabilities, and their use of them. (See article here.) FEMA’s Alerting Authorities web page here outlines the process, and lists agencies who’ve signed up.
IPAWS Tested by Sandy
The most extensive use of IPAWS occurred during Hurricane Sandy’s assault on the northeast. As we reported in a blog post on Halloween, CMAS/WEA alerts were used often during Sandy. As we checked Twitter and other public sites, the alerts seemed welcomed by the public...even if they didn’t understand where the alerts came from. Rick’s New York-based son reported that a friend told him, “This storm must be serious, my cell phone is acting funny” when he received his first alert from the new federal system. The media did a good of job explaining why some people received the alerts and others didn’t. (Here’s an article from ABC News).
In addition to buzz by the public, Sandy also created good alert and warning best practice buzz. The LinkedIn Public Warning and Mass Notification System (MNS) group shared a number of good lessons from Sandy such as need for multi-model communications, back-up plans, and solid training.
Meantime, because of Sandy, Google stepped up its schedule and launched its new Google Public Alerts service ahead of plans. It's designed to make it easy to find specific information about an emergency when using a Google product.
Colorado Wildfires Point Out Alerting Weaknesses
It’s a good thing the IPAWS mobile alerting system is beginning to spread because we’re not being real successful getting the public to sign-up for local alerting initiatives, despite strong efforts in many places. While we know of no national study on sign-up rates (although one would be a good), we consistently hear that less than 10% of the local public registers to receive emergency alerts when asked to do so. This is particularly troublesome considering so many people have dropped their land lands and use cell phones for which there is no national phone number database available.
In a cover story article for Emergency Management magazine in October, we examined the Colorado wildfires of 2012, the most destructive fires in the state’s history. Telephone alerting systems were used often as 32,000 people were evacuated from their homes. Calls to at least 20,000 homes failed - probably because of two reasons. One was that phone numbers weren’t available because of growing cell phone use. The Denver Post found that fewer than 134,000 of the 525,000 adults in the affected counties of El Paso and Teller had signed up to receive alerts prior to the wildfires. Authorities say two of the people who had not signed up died in the fires.
The other reason was probably because so many calls were placed into a tight geographic area over a short period that the local telephone infrastructure couldn’t handle the load. One of the experts we interviewed pointed out that, despite the digital networks in place, most of the phone lines from local telephone company central offices to homes are old-fashioned copper.
Lesson learned (once again): use as many modes of communications as possible to alert. None of them is perfect; none is foolproof.
Progress for People with Disabilities
The same can be true in the never-ending challenge of making sure alerts are delivered to people with disabilities, limited English proficiency, and older adults; multiple modes are necessary. 2012 was a year of progress, though. FEMA sponsored a showcase of technologies to alert people with access and functional needs. The Director of FEMA’s Office of Disability Integration and Coordination, Marcie Roth, was enthusiastic. (See our blog post here including links to some of the technolgies shown.)
It’s a good thing there’s progress to report. A client asked us to estimate the percentage of the U.S. population that might need special assistance or consideration when making public alerts. We think the number reaches a whopping 25% of the population...or over 78,000,000 people. (See our post here).
The Weather Service Uses Strong Warning Language
In the spring of 2012, a particularly strong series of tornadoes was expected in the midwest and southeast. The National Weather Service used usually strong language to sound the alarm. Words like “high-end, life threatening-event” were used, and used early - more than 24 hours in advance. Local officials think the tough and early language worked. The town of Thurman, Iowa was mostly destroyed, but no one there was killed. One town official said she received warnings on her cell phone, home phone, and husband’s cell phone and went to a community shelter a few blocks away. She says the alerts saved their lives.
The Weather Service said new prediction techniques and more advanced warning systems helped them understand that a particularly dangerous, unusual event was about to occur.
Meantime in the summer, the NWS added Spanish to its weather alerts in the southern tip of Texas. The same had been done in El Paso, Miami, and San Diego.
Congress Considers IPAWS
Back to IPAWS, legislation advanced in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate to put more teeth into the IPAWS program. IPAWS was created under Executive Order of the President. The House and Senate bills would make IPAWS a federal law, fully authorized and guided by Congress. The House passed IPAWS legislation in September, and the Senate is considering it in committee. There are differences in the two bills, nothing major, that would require a compromise assuming the Senate, which has bipartisan support for it, passes the bill. Both bills would codify IPAWS, and establish an advisory committee to develop recommendations for IPAWS.
Stiff Fines for Failing to Alert
Another bill in the U.S. legislative hoppers could impose very stiff fines on institutions of higher education that don’t quickly alert students of a campus emergency. The “Michael Pohle Jr. Campus Emergency Alert Act” would give the Department of Education authority to fine such schools 10% of the money the Department had given the school the year before. The bill was introduced in May on the fifth anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings. Virginia Tech was fined the maximum allowable, $55,000. The school is appealing.
Italians Sentenced to Jail for Failing to Alert
Meantime in Italy in October, six scientists and a government official were sentenced to prison for inadequate earthquake alerts. A judge said the seven understood the risks of anticipated quakes in the city of L’Aquila, but failed to issue proper warnings. 300 people died in the quakes.
We’d like to end on a positive note. We won’t ever meet all of the alert and warning challenges, but by golly, there’s progress. One sign of progress is that arguments over one alerting system over another have just about disappeared...or at least are not taken seriously. Yes, you’ll hear vendors and others tout the advantages of their particular solution. But, almost all vendors and users we talk with accept the fact that no single solution will work. To us, that’s progress.
Here’s what we’d like to see happen toward more progress in 2013...
- Users focusing on the science and practice of alerting, understanding that technology is just one part of the equation.
- Local and state politicians realizing that this is serious business, and that they need to support local public safety officials with resources to get alerting right and keep it right.
- Vendors focusing on yet new ways to deliver, while at the same time working with other modes of delivery including IPAWS.
- Local and state public safety officials getting over whatever axes they have to grind with the federal government, and getting fully engaged in the IPAWS initiative.
- Everyone understanding that 25% of the U.S. population may need assistance in receiving alerts, and getting serious about doing something about it.
- The public paying more attention to alerting initiatives, and understanding that it’s in their best interest to get serious about how they’re going to find out about emergencies.
- Local officials collaborating more with their peers in surrounding communities about alerting, understanding that government boundaries have little relationship to where alerts need to be understood.
- Someone somewhere investing money into the science of alerting, and developing a better understanding of how people genuinely react and will react in our changing communications environment.
Here’s wishing you a safe, happy, and productive 2013 and thanking you for opportunities we’ve been given. Business has been good, getting better all the time; we're enjoying our work more than ever, and our families have been truly blessed.
All the best,
Rick and Lorin
On Tuesday, December 18, residents in Texas received the first AMBER alert issued through IPAWS' CMAS/WEA system. The alert was issued in cooperation with the San Antonio Police Department and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
According to media reports, police say Jonathan Guillen, 23, abducted his son, Jonathan Jose Guillen Jr., after Guillen shot and killed the child's mother's boyfriend last Thursday. Soon after the alert was issued, police say the car in which the child was last seen had been located, though the child has apparently not yet been found.
Just a few days ago, CTIA-The Wireless Association, The Wireless Foundation, NCMEC and Syniverse announced that on Dec. 31, 2012, the Wireless AMBER Alert program will end operations as a part of the nation’s transition to the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) program.
The Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) program is managed by FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) office. Major mobile carriers are volunteering their participation in the program which gives alerting authorities the ability to send geographically targeted, text-like messages to WEA-capable mobile devices without the need for recipient sign ups.
You can check out this KXAN News video regarding the use of WEAs in this situation.
Our thoughts and prayers are with this baby and the family.
Six scientists and a government official in Italy have been sentenced to prison for not giving sufficient warning of an earthquake. The quake in 2009 killed more than 300 people in the central Italian city of L'Aquila, home to about 75,000 people. The seven were part of, what's called, The National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks.
A judge ruled they understated the risks, and declared them guilty of criminal manslaughter and causing criminal injury. They were given six-year terms by the judge, even though the prosecution argued for four year terms. The prosecution focused on a memo prior to the quake that said a major quake was "improbable", although possible.
No surprise that the verdict has been controversial. Scientific groups have argued that earthquakes are very unpredictable. Besides, they say, scientists shouldn't be punished for making predictions that turn out to be wrong.
You can read more from the U.K. Daily MailOnline.
Some nice dialogue on the LinkedIn Public Warning and Mass Notification System (MNS) group about lessons about alerting from Sandy. Todd Piett of Rave Mobile Safety said as they provided support to their customers in the northeast, these best practices were most obvious:
- Multi-model communications is key.
- Have back up plans (and back ups to back ups)
- Aim twice and pull the trigger once; training is the key.
- Reassess and begin preparing again.
Lessons you've heard before, but it's always good to take another look after a major event to see which lessons stand out. The site's moderator David Burns echoed Todd's multi-model comments pointing out that, during an event such as this, cell service may actually diminish as power generators run out of fuel. He also reminder the group that we're only now experiencing failures; they will occur for weeks and months.
Ed Czarnecki of Monroe Electronics said Sandy "also demonstrated the continuing value of legacy warning systems, like broadcast EAS". He said, "Next-gen delivery methods for CAP were disrupted for EAS Participants (TV, radio, cable, IPTV) to varying extents". He'd like to see the FCC keep the legacy methods for deploying EAS in parallel with new methods.
You can follow the LinkedIn group here, or feel free to comment below.
All the best,
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There's a good article from ABC News about why some people received Sandy warnings from the new federal cell broadcast system, and others didn't. You can read the article here. We've been hearing reports of how the alerts from the system really got people's attention.
The New York area has been at the forefront of using the new system, which they call in New York "Personal Localized Alert Network" or PLAN. It's known elsewhere as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) and in federal regulation as the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS). (For regular followers, sorry we feel compelled to use all three names so often.)
We suspect success stories coming from Sandy will help encourage other public safety organizations around the country to seek approval to use the WEA/CMAS system through FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). (Geez, another acronym.) The process is relatively simple and inexpensive. You can find a primer on how to do it on our web site, or you can go to FEMA's web site.
All the best,
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My New York-based son says his buddies were saying a few days ago, "This storm must be real, my phone is doing weird things". They were referring to storm alerts their mobile devices were mysteriously receiving. When my son asked, "Is that an app, or how did you sign up?", his buddies told him that they had no idea why they were getting the alerts, but were glad they were.
Of course, we know (at least I hope all readers know by now) the alerts were coming from FEMA's Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) also known as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) by the carriers, and Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN) by the City of New York. With CMAS/WEA/PLAN, there's no need for the public to sign-up. The public automatically gets alerts if they have a wireless device that has been set up to receive the alerts (growing numbers are), if their carrier is participating (most are), and if they're within the affected area.
Well, CMAS/WEA/PLAN certainly got the attention of my son and his buddies and, yes, Patrick, this storm was for real.
All the best,
It appears as if CMAS/WEA alerts were widely and successfully used throughout Hurricane Sandy’s assault on the northeast. Our sources at FEMA IPAWS and the National Weather Service (NWS) confirmed alerts were issued all along the eastern seaboard in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine.
The alerts included blizzard warnings, flash flood warnings, mandatory evacuations, and shelter-in-place messages depending on the location.
It’s interesting to see how agencies dealt with the 90-character message limitation. Here are a few examples:
- "Blizzard Warning this area til 6:00 PM EDT Tue. Prepare. Avoid Travel. Check media. –NWS"
- "Go indoors immediately and remain inside. DO NOT DRIVE. Call 9-1-1 for emergencies only."
- "Flash Flood Warning this area til 3:45 PM EDT. Avoid flood areas. Check local media. –NWS"
From comments on Twitter and other public sites, it seems the emergency messages were generally welcomed by citizens, even if some uncertainty existed as to how these were delivered. It’s exciting to see this technology being used in practical ways despite the tragic circumstances.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the emergency managers, first responders, healthcare providers, and citizens during this extremely difficult time.
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