The Latest on Emergency Alerting

On September 28, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in coordination with the FCC, will conduct a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System. The test, first officially announced in July, will be an opportunity to assess the readiness of America’s core public alert and warning infrastructure. It is critical that this infrastructure remains capable of providing timely and accurate information to the public in a range of emergencies – whether it’s extreme weather, a missing child, or a terrorist attack. In these and other crises, the rapid dissemination of authoritative information can save lives. In light of the upcoming test, now is a good time for a brief refresher on alerting – including how state and local public safety agencies can make the best use of this vital tool. 

Some Alerting Basics

Alerts are a key communications tool through which government entities can warn the public about various emergencies. Emergency alerts are created by authorized local government agencies, sent to a central system administered by FEMA, and then disseminated by communications providers to affected communities. The FCC prescribes technical and procedural rules for communications providers’ participation in this process.

The Nation’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), managed by FEMA, is the central gateway that is used to transmit the alerts from government agencies to the public. Agencies across the country use this gateway to send warnings through the Emergency Alert System, reaching the public on TV and radio. Agencies can also use the gateway to send short, geographically targeted warnings through Wireless Emergency Alerts, which reach Americans on their cell phones. As a result, Federal, state, local, Tribal, and territorial government agencies have ways to disseminate fast, relevant, and useful emergency information to communities through different technologies, thereby reaching more people. (The upcoming nationwide Emergency Alert System test will not include Wireless Emergency Alerts.)

Though the Emergency Alert System and Wireless Emergency Alerts are used regularly to dispatch weather and AMBER alerts – for example, the vast majority of alerts are sent by the National Weather Service – they can also be used to warn of other imminent threats. In fact, 911 call centers and local Emergency Operations Centers are among the government agencies that can become alert originators. Indeed, alerting can be a valuable tool for local leaders to integrate into their emergency response plans. 

Empowering State and Local Public Safety Agencies

With that in mind, we encourage state and local emergency planners to consider the following:   

  1. Are your local government agencies familiar with America’s emergency alerting system?  If not, encourage local agencies to consider including alerting in their emergency response plans. Where agencies have already incorporated alerting, they may wish to develop multiple emergency training scenarios that can be used to increase employee confidence with these tools. 
  1. Are 911 call centers included in your alerting plans? You may want to consider not only authorizing emergency management and response agencies to send alerts but also 911 call centers. In many situations, the 911 call center is the first in government to learn about an emergency, and call center supervisors may have the best available situational awareness. As a result, they may be in a position to issue timely and useful warnings (such as a shelter-in-place alert) to their community. Of course as with any other government agency authorized to send alerts, 911 call centers will need clear organizational roles, responsibilities and controls regarding alert origination.  (Information on how 911 call centers can become alert originators is available here.)
  1. Do you know your state emergency alerting leaders? Each state has an emergency communications coordinator whose responsibility includes maintaining a statewide emergency alerting plan. We encourage communities to engage directly with their state coordinator to ensure that this resource best supports local needs.

The Future of Alerting

As we work to improve today’s alerting capabilities, we are also planning for the future. To that end, the FCC has proposed rules to strengthen Wireless Emergency Alerts and the Emergency Alert System as community-driven public safety tools.

America’s alerting systems rely on the participation of a broad range of stakeholders, including not only government agencies but also communications companies, technology vendors, and others in the community. We encourage all stakeholders to stay informed and involved in the future of alerting.


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