With a unanimous vote, the U.S. House has passed the FEMA Reauthorization Act of 2012 (H.R. 2903). Its primary intent is to making FEMA assistance to states and local communities more effective. The bill, however, also includes a provision that would turn FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) into law. Currently, it operates under authority of a Presidential Executive Order.
A statement from Representative Jeff Denham (R-CA) who introduced the bill said, "the IPAWS provisions will provide a clear framework for the modernization of FEMA's outdated Emergency Alert System, and help ensure that taxpayer dollars are not wasted in the process". The bill would cap the amount of money spent on IPAWS at $13,287,000 per year.
In addition to guidance for what IPAWS should do (much of which is in process), the bill would establish an advisory committee to develop recommendations for IPAWS. There's a comparable piece of legislation pending in the Senate, so it's assumed a House-Senate committee will work on a compromise.
You can view the full Reauthorization Act here. Excerpts of the IPAWS language follows:
(1) IN GENERAL- To provide timely and effective disaster warnings under this section, the President, acting through the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, shall--
(A) modernize the integrated public alert and warning system of the United States (in this section referred to as the ‘public alert and warning system’) to ensure that the President under all conditions is able to alert and warn governmental authorities and the civilian population in areas endangered by disasters; and
(B) implement the public alert and warning system.
(2) IMPLEMENTATION REQUIREMENTS- In carrying out paragraph (1), the Administrator shall, consistent with the recommendations in the final report of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Advisory Committee (established under subsection (c))--
(A) establish or adopt, as appropriate, common alerting and warning protocols, standards, terminology, and operating procedures for the public alert and warning system;
(B) include in the public alert and warning system the capability to adapt the distribution and content of communications on the basis of geographic location, risks, or personal user preferences, as appropriate;
(C) include in the public alert and warning system the capability to alert and warn, and provide the equivalent amount of information to individuals with disabilities and individuals with access and functional needs;
(D) ensure that training, tests, and exercises are conducted for the public alert and warning system and that the system is incorporated into other training and exercise programs of the Department of Homeland Security, as appropriate;
(E) establish and integrate into the National Incident Management System a comprehensive and periodic training program to instruct and educate Federal, State, Tribal, and local government officials in the use of the Common Alerting Protocol enabled Emergency Alert System;
(F) conduct, at least once every 3 years, periodic nationwide tests of the public alert and warning system; and
(G) ensure that the public alert and warning system is resilient, secure, and can withstand acts of terrorism and other external attacks.
(3) SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS- The public alert and warning system shall--
(A) incorporate multiple communications technologies;
(B) be designed to adapt to, and incorporate, future technologies for communicating directly with the public;
(C) to the extent technically feasible, be designed to provide alerts to the largest portion of the affected population, including nonresident visitors and tourists and individuals with disabilities and access and functional needs, and improve the ability of remote areas to receive alerts;
(D) promote local and regional public and private partnerships to enhance community preparedness and response;
(E) provide redundant alert mechanisms if practicable so as to reach the greatest number of people regardless of whether they have access to, or utilize, any specific medium of communication or any particular device; and
(F) include a mechanism to ensure the protection of individual privacy.
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When Apple released its new operating system for iPhones and iPads this week, it was confirmed that "Government Alerts" capability is included. This is big. With the popularity of Apple's mobile devices, significantly more people in the country will be able to receive alerts through FEMA's Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), also known as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). I guess "Government Alerts" becomes yet another name for the system which allows local, state, and federal officials to "broadcast" alerts through cell towers to devices in the area equipped to receive CMAS/WEA/Government Alerts. Alerts are sent to targeted geographic areas. Residents don't have to sign up. And, there's no charge.
Alerts will be used for "imminent threats", AMBER Alerts, and emergency messages from the President. Per the law that established the CMAS program, mobile users can opt out of "imminent threats" and AMBER Alerts, but not out of emergency messages from a President. Presumably, the Government Alerts capability in iOS6 would work the same way. The "Notification Center" in iOS6 makes it clear that users can turn off AMBER Alerts and Emergency Alerts, but does not indicate that Presidential alerts cannot be turned off. (No President has ever used ability to send alerts to the nation, even though the capability has existed since the 1950s through the Emergency Alert System on radio and TV.)
Apple's Government Alerts capability is apparently not available to all who have the new iOS6. Macworld says it found Government Alerts settings in the San Francisco area for Sprint and Verizon, but not AT&T. And, Macworld says an informal poll via Twitter showed that some Verizon users in some parts of the country have access to the Government Alerts setting in iOS6 while others do not. This would be consistent with the fact that carriers are still in the process of building out the capability throughout the country.
Meantime, local and state public safety officials continue to apply to FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) for authority to use the CMAS/WEA/Government Alerts systems for imminent threats and AMBER Alerts in their areas. Over 60 state and local agencies have been given CMAS/WEA alerting authority by FEMA; another 80+ have applications pending. Local agencies will also need approval from their state. Our web site here contains a ten-minute podcast for local public safety officials to get a high-level overview of the new program, including instructions on receiving alerting authority.
The National Weather Service is already using the FEMA system for certain types of weather warnings (not watches), such as tornado warnings and flash floods. (See earlier post here.)
All the best,
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