FEMA tests a new alert system

Internet-based system reaches across different devices and jurisdictions

Alert system timeline

The U.S. public alert and warning system existed in its original form more than three decades. The pace of modernization has picked up significantly in recent years.

1963 - Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) was established, allowing the president or state and local officials to send alerts via radio and TV stations. However, it required local operators to relay the alerts.

1997 - Emergency Alert System, whose development was initiated in 1994, fully replaced the EBS.

2006 - Integrated Public Alert and Warning
System (IPAWS) was established as the system that would accommodate Executive Order 13407, which called for a modernized alert system.

2010/2011 - IPAWS is expected to become the common architecture for Internet-based communication of emergency alerts and messages.

Brian Robinson

A partnership between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Sandia National Laboratories might finally bring the country’s critical emergency alert system (EAS) into the digital age, as lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina transform the country’s emergency response agenda.

FEMA and Sandia began small-scale implementations of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) in several Gulf Coast states in August, at the start of the active part of the 2007 hurricane season. If those and other small-scale implementations planned for next year are on track, officials involved in IPAWS’ development said a national implementation of the new alert system could happen by 2010.

“This year’s pilots were aimed at demonstrating that the system could deliver more than radio and TV alerts and at getting buy-in from [state and local] emergency managers,” said Ron Glaser, IPAWS program manager at Sandia. “We’re hoping to pilot the initial level of the Trans-enterprise Services Grid (TSG) and other systems for the 2008 hurricane season.”

The TSG is a core element of IPAWS that will enable the new EAS to operate securely across federal, regional, state, local and tribal jurisdictions involved in major emergency responses. The Internet-based IPAWS will make it easier for emergency managers to communicate alerts and other emergency-related messages to the public, program officials said.

The EAS now operates through a cascade arrangement, in which messages are sent to a single, primary point. Then local authorities pick up those messages and retransmit them. Other authorities then pick up the messages, transmit them and so on. By contrast, IPAWS messages can be broadcast to all recipients simultaneously.

IPAWS enables officials to send messages to various Internet-connected devices, including personal digital assistants, cell phones and, presumably, any yet-to-be-developed devices, as long as they conform to accepted standards, program officials said.

The roots of the IPAWS program date to 2004, when the Homeland Security Department began looking for ways to improve the public alert system in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, and other public and private stakeholders. It evolved to its current status with the publication of the Hurricane Katrina lessons-learned report and the issuance in June 2006 of Executive Order 13407.

That order made it the policy of the United States to establish “an effective, reliable, integrated, flexible and comprehensive system to alert and warn the American people in situations of war, terrorist attack, natural disaster or other hazards” and ensure that under all conditions the president can communicate with the public.

IPAWS research will define plug-and-play interfaces for organizations that want to use it. Research is also needed to develop security and authentication procedures, Glaser said. The IPAWS architecture will be based on standards such as the Common Alerting Protocol and the Emergency Data Exchange Language.

Besides its primary public notification capability, IPAWS could also provide a mechanism for collaboration and situational awareness that current emergency communications lack, Glaser said.

IPAWS is already being seen as a potential forerunner for other interoperable government communications systems, the lack of which has been a major source of criticism for DHS.

“If we continue to be successful with this project, there are other opportunities to use this same architecture for other complex communications systems that require a high degree of interoperability and a high degree of data validation” said Jill Hruby, director of Sandia’s Center for Homeland Security and Defense Systems.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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