Wirelessly Alerting Citizens Where and When They are in Danger

During Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the Northeast coast, New York City employed a new public alerting technology. Using FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), New York City was able to send Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) directly to cell phone users warning them to evacuate an area, or shelter in place, or avoid driving on the roads depending on where they were located. Because WEAs are not subscription based, residents and tourists in New York City received WEAs during Hurricane Sandy.

Only authorized IPAWS alerting authorities can send WEAs. Federal, state, territorial, tribal, or local public safety officials can become authorized IPAWS alerting authorities through a simple four step authorization process. In addition to hundreds of states, counties, and cities across the nation that are currently authorized to use IPAWS, the National Weather Service (NWS) uses IPAWS to send WEAs to keep citizens aware of severe weather. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) also uses WEAs to send AMBER alerts in the most serious child-abduction cases.

WEAs are free messages broadcast directly to WEA-capable cell phones and can ensure that life-saving information, whether it is about a missing child, evacuation, chemical spills, severe weather, or other hazardous situations, reaches the public in time to respond. WEAs attract attention with a unique sound and vibration, which is particularly helpful to people with hearing or vision-related disabilities, but will not interrupt calls in progress. WEA technology is available nationwide and is already on dozens of wireless cell phones or other wireless devices.

WEAs are broadcast to mobile phones in a geographically targeted affected area down to the county level. Future technology developments will make it possible for alerting authorities to refine targeting capabilities.

Every WEA has an expiration date/time and will be resent within the affected area until it expires; however, each individual wireless device will display the alert only once. If a wireless customer travels into the affected area after the WEA was originally sent, and the alert has not expired, they will still receive the alert.

WEAs are limited to 90 characters and look like text messages, but unlike existing text messaging that uses Short Message Service Point-to-Point (SMS-PP), WEAs are broadcast to devices by the SMS-Cell Broadcast (SMS-CB) in a one-to-many service, which simultaneously delivers the message to multiple recipients. The WEA therefore avoids network congestion issues experienced with traditional SMS and will be received by WEA-capable phones even if individuals can not send or receive calls or texts.

WEAs are products of the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) which is a partnership between Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and wireless carriers. IPAWS alerting authorities can use FEMA’s IPAWS Open Platform for Emergency Networks (IPAWS-OPEN) to send out geographically targeted alert and warning messages through a variety of disseminators, including the Emergency Alert System (EAS), which sends warnings to television and radio via broadcast, cable, satellite and wireline communication pathways, CMAS/WEAs, public feed service to enhance internet services, unique alerting systems such as road signs and large voice sirens, and emerging technologies.

Currently all major cell phone carriers, as well as numerous smaller carriers, are participating and selling mobile devices that have CMAS/WEA capability. Not all phones currently in the market are capable of receiving WEAs, but it is anticipated that by 2014 all commercially available phones will be WEA-enabled. Carriers list the devices currently WEA-capable on www.ctia.org/WEA as well mark phone and wireless devices boxes with the Wireless Emergency Alert logo.
To learn more about IPAWS or about becoming an IPAWS alerting authority, go to www.fema.gov/ipaws. The FEMA IPAWS Program Management Office can be reached at ipaws@dhs.gov.

Information submitted by Caitlyn Stephenson, CACI, Federal Civilian Solutions' Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS),DHS/ FEMA National Continuity Programs