FEMA close to adopting standard for emergency alerts

The Federal Emergency Management Agency expects to adopt the Common Alerting Protocol 1.1 for the national emergency warning and alert system by early next year, FEMA officials said today.

The goal is to create a national infrastructure so digital messages can be sent seamlessly to televisions, radios, computer desktops and other elements of FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, said Lance Craver, program manager for the system.

“We are working with our partners to create the infrastructure and interoperability,” Craver said.

The protocol is an open-source technical standard developed by volunteers seven years ago. It was accepted by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) in 2004, and later refined by that organization. It has been widely adopted among emergency managers and broadcasters as well as disaster managers at FEMA. It has long been anticipated that FEMA would make it an official standard.

Under law, participants in the Emergency Alert System (EAS), including broadcasters and emergency managers, will be required to be in compliance with the CAP 1.1 standard in 180 days after FEMA makes the standard official. One reason the process has been extended over time is to ensure that the participants are fully ready to take that step, said FEMA spokeswoman Mary-Margaret Walker.

Over the next six months, FEMA officials are working with several federal and industry partners, including OASIS, to clarify how certain optional parts of the CAP are to be used, and to iron out some interoperability issues, Craver said.

During that time, FEMA and its partners will be developing specific formats, or profiles, for messages to be shared in the EAS, Craver said. Additional formats may be created for specific types of emergencies, such as health care events or events that originate with a chemical sensor reading, he said.

FEMA, in conjunction with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, is working on creating a testing structure so that vendors can evaluate whether their CAP messaging software and hardware products are aligned with the profiles and are interoperable with one another, Craver said.

“Arriving at standards and protocols that work for everyone is a complex process,” Martha Rainville, assistant administrator of FEMA’s National Continuity Programs Directorate, which oversees the warning system, said in a news release.

But FEMA intends to formally adopt and publish a profile in line with CAP 1.1 early next year. "We are working closely with partners across the government, private sector and nonprofit community to develop a CAP profile that ensures the interoperability needed to deliver alerts and warnings to more people in more locations through more paths,” Rainville said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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