From Galain President Rick Wimberly’s Blog “Alerts and Notifications: Best Practices For Emergency Notification Programs”

in Emergency Management Magazine

The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) again took the top positions in alerting stories of the year. The news was both good and bad.

1.  The good news (and it’s very good news) is that the IPAWS Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system created impressive success stories by helping save lives and finding missing children. National Public Radio aired a segment where a minister in Illinois told of his congregation receiving tornado warnings on their mobile devices via WEA. 400 worshipers were led to shelter, avoiding an overpassing tornado. The minister called the alerts “the saving grace”.

This is progress, real progress. Meantime, impressive stories were told of children being safely recovered based on information from AMBER Alerts issued through WEA.

We could probably stop here because no other alerting development during the year came near the magnitude of IPAWS success stories. But, we’ll go on…

2. The bad news about IPAWS is that serious concerns have surfaced about its technical infrastructure. FEMA is so concerned that they have publicly stated that IPAWS cannot be supported by the existing FEMA and DHS infrastructures, and the risk of the architecture is “too great for IPAWS and our nation”. On the plus side, FEMA is trying to do something about it. They recently released a Request for Information to hunt for commercially available solutions.

Other bad IPAWS news relates to the level of funding. Despite the demonstrated successes, the program is funded at around $10,000,000 per year…not much for an initiative with such a clear return in saving lives, protecting resources, and saving local communities money. Plus, IPAWS still exists because of an old Presidential Executive Order, and not law set by Congress. A couple of pieces of legislation are in play to correct this, but funding could still be a big issue. We now know that serious infrastructure concerns exist, and outreach has been very limited. There are still key stakeholders and the public who aren’t aware of what IPAWS can do for them.

3. Meantime, local communities continue to work toward enhancing their own alerting efforts. Despite the availability of the WEA cell broadcast alert system at virtually no cost, locals seem to understand that WEA and other IPAWS initiatives only complement their existing efforts.

4. That’s the good news. The bad news is that local communities still struggle to get the public to sign up for alerting initiatives. The most successful sign-up program we’ve seen this year is a client who asked people to register for alerts at the same time they were signing up for something else they needed. People need to be nudged to sign up, and it must be convenient. We don’t think the public is hesitant to sign up, just not motivated to do it…until something bad happens or creative encouragement is used.

5. The Emergency Alert System (EAS) made news in 2013. Again, there was good and bad. The good was expressed in an FCC report that said EAS is “basically sound”. The bad came from a zombie attack announced via EAS by someone who hacked into a TV station’s EAS system and issued a phony alert. As it turns out, there were no zombies and the vulnerability was quickly discovered and fixed.

There was other good/bad news on EAS in 2013. The good was the beginning of the discussion about how WEA can complement emergency communications efforts of radio and TV stations. Even though WEA comes from broadcasters’ competitors in the cell industry, the two can work together as evidenced in a webinar we co-produced showing the synergy. (See our earlier post here, which includes a link to the short webinar.)  The bad news is that, still, many broadcasters don’t see why it’s in their best interests to tout WEA on the air. Perhaps progress can be made in 2014.

6. There seems to have been progress during the year on alerting people with disabilities. Of most significance was a report from Wireless RERC (Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center) at Georgia Tech that showed which communications channels are preferred by people with disabilities for receiving, confirming, and sharing public alerts. TV was at the top of the list. Most interesting, however, was that text messaging moved from sixth place in 2011 to second place in 2013. Email was third. A phone call was forth. The good news is that all four of these channels are getting stronger every day. Meantime, FEMA recently awarded a contract to Wireless RERC to go deeper into alerting people with disabilities.

7. In a related development in 2013, FEMA released a paper called “Alerting the Whole community: Removing Barriers to Alerting Accessibility”. It showed how IPAWS addresses the challenge of reaching what FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate likes to call the “Whole Community”. The paper can be found here on the FEMA website.  (In the interest of full disclosure, we must report that we helped FEMA prepare the report.)

8. Twitter got into the alerting business in 2013, and launched Twitter Alerts. Certain organizations can sign up to offer their followers alerting capability through Twitter. As you would expect considering the source, the announcement generated a lot of buzz. We signed up for alerts from several organizations (FEMA, Red Cross, DHS), but it appears we get all of their Tweets, not just alerts. You can read about Twitter Alerts at the Twitter Alerts blog.

9. Back to IPAWS, there were significant changes in Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) in 2013. First of all, Wireless Emergency Alerts became the official name of the initiative, as opposed to the earlier name of Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS). Secondly, the organization that supports the wireless industry indicated changes are ahead.  In Congressional testimony, Christopher Guttman-McCabb of CTIA-The Wireless Association said the FCC council that proposed rules for WEA (then CMAS) will look at other changes. The 90 character message limit and ability to more precisely target alerts are expected to be discussed. See our post here.

10. Colleges and universities made nice progress getting their alerting acts together. Many seem to have adjusted their initial reaction to Virginia Tech of rushing out to rely on text systems to alert. Now, a more comprehensive approach with use of more channels seems to be the norm. Plus, the texting offerings have improved, thanks to creative vendors who have figured out how to get special provisions for emergency alerts.

It was a rather eventful year, with nice progress made.  Yet, some of the nagging questions remain. Like, how do you get people to sign up? How do you sort through the maze of vendor offerings? How do you ensure that your alerting initiative goes beyond technology and really delivers success? How do you pay for your alerting program? How do you help the public understand what you’re doing for alerting and what they need to do about it? How do you keep up with changing communications preferences? And, I could go on.

Finally, thanks to all who’ve made this another successful year for Galain – our clients, our consultants, our staff, our friends, our families and our colleagues who, whether they realize it or not, constantly keep us engaged and moving forward.

Happy New Year, and watch for our upcoming post looking ahead at the new year.


Galain Solutions, Inc.