FEMA adopts open standards

Two years after White House officials ordered an overhaul of public emergency alert systems nationwide, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is close to adopting its first technical standard for the nation’s new Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. FEMA plans to adopt the Common Alerting Protocol, or CAP, an open-source technical standard developed by volunteers seven years ago and accepted by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) in 2004. It has been widely adopted by emergency managers, and FEMA has been expected to make it the standard for IPAWS.

“With CAP, you can have a very efficient message,” said David Lamensdorf, chairman of the Emergency Interoperability Consortium, a group of government and industry partners working on information sharing for emergency response.

It is the one of the first times that the Homeland Security Department has chosen a technical standard developed in a public, open-source fashion to play a key role in a government initiative. Other departmental programs, such as the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, use federally developed technical platforms such as the Federal Information Processing Standard 201. Complex projects such as DHS’ SBInet surveillance system are using mostly customized and proprietary technologies.

However, FEMA officials say they believe the choice of CAP reflects the needs of key stakeholders. That could set an example for other federal agencies looking to increase participation in government initiatives, said Lance Craver, FEMA’s project manager for IPAWS.

“Emergency managers have driven the development of the CAP standard and have driven the development and implementation of CAP-based products in industry for the Next-Generation Emergency Alert System,” he said.

Nonetheless, the CAP standard needs some refinement for FEMA, in particular to resolve some technical interoperability concerns, Craver said. In the next several months, FEMA will be creating formats for specific types of messages to be sent through IPAWS, he added. The agency is working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to verify that the message formats are functional and interoperable.

“I’m encouraged that everybody agrees in principle that CAP is the way to solve the interoperability problem,” said Art Botterell, an emergency manager in Contra Costa County, Calif., and one of the chief architects of CAP. “I’m discouraged that we haven’t seemed to move beyond that agreement over the last three to four years.”

CAP might speed IPAWS’ slow progress
By announcing its support for CAP, FEMA has taken a significant step forward for the long-awaited system that has shown only sporadic progress overall. Though the alerting protocol is likely to be adopted soon, FEMA is facing additional policy challenges in developing its  aggregator role for IPAWS and drawing more stakeholders into the system, experts say.

FEMA must decide whether to mechanically pass along alert messages or to depend on a yet-to-be-created nationwide human chain of command to determine who passes on which emergency message to whom. That chain of command would allow the system to be flexible enough to scale broadly or narrowly depending on the size of the emergency, said David Aylward, founder of the Comcare Alliance, a nonprofit group that represents dozens of emergency response organizations.

Aylward recommends the scalable approach, and he said it is not clear whether FEMA is fully committed to IPAWS scaling down to localized emergencies. “That has not been a core mission of FEMA,” Aylward said. “FEMA is a disaster agency, and not all emergencies are disasters.”

Nonetheless, supporters of FEMA said they are heartened by the agency’s partnerships with the National Weather Service, Federal Communications Commission, DHS Science and Technology Directorate, and industry groups such as the Emergency Interoperability Consortium and OASIS.
“I am delighted that FEMA is working with federal partners,” said Elysa Jones, chairwoman of OASIS’ Emergency Management Technical Committee. “That has not happened in the past. I feel progress is being made.”

FEMA is responsible for updating the existing national emergency alert system of TV and radio to include messages sent to computers, cell phones and other digital media. The system will encompass federal, state and local alerts.

IPAWS was envisioned in 2004, and President Bush launched it with an executive order in 2006. FEMA has conducted several test demonstrations for the project and strengthened its coordination with federal agencies and industry groups. It expects to adopt the CAP Version 1.1 technical standard in the next several months to set the format for standard alert messages.

Despite those gains, the IPAWS project is getting mixed reviews, and some public warning advocates are worried that FEMA is moving too slowly and might fall short in its approach to a large and complex project.

“FEMA has had a series of false starts on IPAWS,” Aylward said. “We have a long way to go to have a fully integrated emergency alert system.”

“It is taking a long time to get IPAWS going,” said Paul Wormeli, executive director of the Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute, which works on information sharing for public safety.
Critics also claim FEMA is not consulting enough with state and local emergency managers and users, and as a result, IPAWS might not deliver sufficient capability to the people who will use it.

“FEMA has been working with contractors on IPAWS as if it were just another big federal procurement, but it is not,” Botterell said. “It is a system of systems. It is an interoperability project and you cannot do it unilaterally.”

FEMA officials say IPAWS is making progress on schedule. The agency’s pending acceptance of the alerting protocol is a step in the right direction because the standard was developed by emergency managers, Craver said.

Furthermore, FEMA is reaching out to emergency managers and will meet with the International Association of Emergency Managers in November, Craver said. FEMA also is coordinating with a managers working group organized by DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate.

“FEMA is committed to a truly open, secure, vendor-neutral system of systems,” Craver said.  “A truly integrated system of systems requires close coordination with our partners and is inherently slow to market out of caution to deliver effective and robust results.”

IPAWS updates older warning systems
IPAWS is the latest update to public warning systems, which have been around for decades in the form of sirens, radio and TV messages, and public announcements from police and fire officials. The nation’s Emergency Alert System was initiated in 1963 to carry presidential emergency messages, though none has ever been sent. That system continues to be used for local and regional severe weather warnings and other emergencies.

IPAWS was envisioned as an expansion and update of the existing emergency alert system that would include a variety of digital devices and Internet communications.

FEMA’s IPAWS pilot projects have included tests of geographic alerts, Web-based tools, emergency telephone notification systems, and notification of people with hearing disabilities. It also has tested digital alerting, in which an emergency operations center can create an alert and use CAP to send the alert to a TV or radio station.

But other IPAWS initiatives have flip-flopped. In August 2007, FEMA announced it had set up a partnership with Sandia National Laboratories to do technology integration and architecture for IPAWS. That collaboration has been terminated, a Sandia spokesman said.

In April, FCC issued an order creating the Commercial Mobile Alert System to carry cell phone emergency alerts and text messages, which is part of IPAWS. However, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said the project would falter without a federal aggregator, and he accused FEMA of inappropriately declining the role. Several weeks later, FEMA’s Martha Rainville, assistant director of the National Continuity Programs Directorate, said FEMA would accept the aggregator role.

In recent weeks, IPAWS activity appears to be quickening. On Aug. 25, DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate, on behalf of IPAWS, issued a request for information to seek commercial products for the alert system.

Also in August, FEMA said it would conduct a national survey of 2,000 existing public warning programs to help it plan for IPAWS. The long-awaited survey will not delay implementation of CAP, which is anticipated in early 2009, Craver said.

 “I am not too concerned about FEMA dragging its feet, because it won’t fix anything anyway,” said Larry Gispert, a director for the international emergency managers group. “The population is very diverse, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.” 

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