What Happened in Emergency Alerts and Notifications in 2012?

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.

What was the Tipping Point for Alerting in 2012?

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 Hurricane 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 technologies 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.